‘Empty words instead of effective measures’: Critics hit out at German nutrition strategy to promote plant-based and non-HFSS diets
Germany’s federal government has revealed what it describes as the ‘cornerstones’ for a nutrition strategy developed by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL).
Unveiling its key issues paper, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Özdemir highlighted the scale of the challenge policy makers face. “A good two-thirds of men, around half of women and almost every sixth child in Germany are overweight,” he stressed.
According to government figures, around 15% of three- to seventeen-year-olds in Germany are overweight, including almost 6% who are obese. Initial studies, such as the COPSY study by the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Hospital on the well-being of children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, also indicate that lack of exercise and an unbalanced diet among young people have increased significantly during the pandemic, the government noted.
The Ministry of Food and Agriculture's (BMEL) position paper sets out the guidelines for the country’s future food strategy, with the ambition to ‘make a contribution to the transformation of the food system and to create the framework and structures that enable everyone in Germany to eat healthily and sustainably’.
Özdemir said the nutrition strategy aims to address health inequalities associated with access to good nutrition, a factor that is tied to socio-economic status. "I don't want to tell people what to eat. I want to make sure that it is possible for everyone in Germany to eat well and healthily - regardless of income, education or origin," the Minister emphasised. “Our strategy should focus in particular on children, people from households at risk of poverty and people with an immigrant background. It's about opportunities. It's about better opportunities for everyone."
Özdemir outlined plans to introduce nutrition standards in canteens, hospitals and schools as an opportunity to improve access to nutrition and shift diets towards healthier options. “It should go without saying that patients in hospitals get the best possible food for their recovery. And we as a society are doing ourselves a great favour if we offer our children, the most valuable thing we have, a healthy and varied range of food in kindergarten and school. That's why we want to use community catering as a lever, among other things, to enable all citizens to experience good, tasty and healthy meals. After all, those who experience how good fruit, vegetables or legumes taste may be less likely to reach for the Germans' most popular canteen dish, the currywurst with fries. This protects your own health, the environment and the climate,” he suggested.
Indeed, the German nutrition strategy defines the transition towards a ‘more plant-based diet’ as one of its central goals, alongside reducing the level of fat sugar and salt in processed foods. Additional targets include cutting food waste and making community catering ‘healthier and more sustainable’ by increasing the proportion of ‘seasonal, regional and climate-friendly food’ available.
‘Empty words instead of effective measures’
However, the strategy has met a decidedly cool response from food industry representatives and civil society alike.
Deutscher Bauernverband (DBV), the German farmers' association, said that from the point of view of agriculture the cornerstones of the BMEL’s position have positives and negatives. Udo Hemmerling, Secretary General of the DBV elaborated: "It is positive that the federal government wants to promote nutritional education and a healthy lifestyle with sufficient exercise.”
However, Hemmerling continued, the DBV rejects ‘discrimination against certain foods’ and is opposed to the government’s stated objective to promote plant-based diets. “The diet of Germans already consists of about 70% plant-based foods. Government campaigns against animal-based foods are inappropriate,” Hemmerling insisted.
The DBV also wants to see an increased focus on the promotion of local production through improved labelling requirements that it says would promote transparency for consumers. “For farmers, the promotion of transparency through consistent husbandry and origin labelling for animal products [should be a] priority. This does not only apply to fresh meat, but also to processed products such as sausages. This labelling is necessary so that consumers can recognize and appreciate the work of the farmers,” Hemmerling said.
German consumer advocates Foodwatch went further still in their criticism of the policy, suggesting that it consists of ‘empty words instead of effective measures’.
Responding to the strategy, Foodwatch’s Chris Methmann insisted it ‘falls far short’ of its stated aim to improve the nutrition of the nation. “Instead of using effective measures to counteract malnutrition, especially among children, his strategy contains a lot of empty words and little that is new. The fact that Cem Özdemir wants to make the quality standards of the [nutrition strategy] mandatory for communal catering is a PR gimmick.”
The BMEL said that it expects the nutrition strategy to be finalised and approved by the federal government by the end of 2023 and stressed it is being developed with the input of all ‘relevant actors’ because ‘fundamental changes require a joint effort’. However, Methmann believes that Özdemir’s timeline will mean little action is taken. “He wants to take his time until 2030 to coordinate with the federal states. Until then, this plan will die a slow death in German federalism,” the consumer advocate suggested.
Instead, Foodwatch would like to see the implementation of ‘concrete actions’ backed by health organisations and consumer associations with immediate effect. “For example, VAT on fruit and vegetables must be abolished so that everyone can afford healthy eating. In return, manufacturers of sugary drinks should pay a levy. Such a soda tax in the UK has led to producers cutting the sugar content in their drinks significantly – by more than 35 percent between 2015 and 2019,” Methmann argued.
Restrictions on HFSS marketing to children ‘one step forward’
Nevertheless, he conceded the strategy does contain ‘one step forward’ in its proposal on the future restriction of HFSS marketing to children – with the caveat that any regulation resulting from the policy must have teeth.
“In principle, only healthy food should be advertised on radio, TV and streaming services between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. This will be used to measure whether the only concrete building block in Özdemir's nutritional strategy is effective,” he stressed.
“The healthy choice must finally become the easy choice. Currently, children eat about twice as much sweets but only half as much fruit and vegetables as recommended. With fatal consequences for later life: every seventh death in Germany is due to unhealthy nutrition.”