In the context of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy – which aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly – the European Commission announced a proposal for harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling, to enable consumers to make informed, healthy and sustainable food choices, write Katia Merten-Lentz of international law firm Keller and Heckman, and Caroline Commandeur, Associate at Keller and Heckman
This article was first published at IHS Markit (subscription required), 26 October 2020
Currently, any prepacked food placed on the EU market and intended for consumers must bear a nutrition declaration, following the requirements laid down in articles 30 to 34 of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (EU) No.1169/20112 (the ‘FIC Regulation’).
As a minimum, the nutrition declaration must include the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein, and salt, expressed per 100g or 100ml and presented, if possible, in tabular format with the numbers aligned.
In order to help consumers to make healthier food choices and easily see the essential nutrition information of a food, Article 35 of the FIC Regulation allows an additional voluntary repetition of the energy value and/or the amount of the nutrients, expressed by other forms of expression (e.g.: per 200g) and/or presented using graphical forms or symbols.
These additional forms of expression and presentation of nutritional information must meet several legal requirements.
In particular, they must not mislead the consumers, but must facilitate their understanding of the contribution or importance of the food to the energy and nutrient content of a diet. They must also be supported by scientific evidence showing that this information is understood by the average consumer.
In addition, they have to be objective, non-discriminatory and must not create barriers to the free movement of goods.
Such additional forms of expression and presentation are commonly known as ‘front-of-pack nutrition labelling’, which refers to the nutrition information displayed in the principal field of vision of a product.
A variety of schemes has been developed across the European Union, by various stakeholders, under a range of different formats. They may repeat some or all the numerical information from the mandatory nutrition declaration, as provided for by Article 35 of the FIC Regulation. This is for instance the case of the Reference Intakes scheme, whose label provides numerical information on how much energy and nutriments are present in a portion of a food and how much this represents as a percentage of the daily reference intake.
But they may also express the overall nutritional value of a food, like the keyhole used in Nordic countries, that identifies nutritionally favorable options within certain product categories.
Because of a lack of agreement on a single EU front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme in 2008, Member States have been allowed to recommend that food business operators use a specific front-of-pack nutrition labelling.
Based on national experiences gathered, the Commission would then, by December 2017, submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council, to take a more informed decision on possible further harmonisation.
After having been postponed several times, this report was finally published on 20 May 2020. It is based on the review of the scientific literature carried out by the Joint Research Centre, concerning front-of-pack nutrition labelling and its effects on consumers, food business operators and on the single market.
The review includes not only additional forms of expression and/or presentation of the nutrition declaration, as considered by Article 35 of the FIC Regulation, but also other schemes which are, strictly speaking, out of the scope of this Article, and fall rather in the scope of Article 36 on voluntary information and/or in the scope of the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (EC) No. 1924/20067.
The most iconic example is the French Nutri-Score, adopted in 2017, which does not repeat information contained in the nutrition declaration, but provides information on the overall nutritional quality of a food, through a range of five colors, associated with a letter grade. The score is based on an algorithm, which considers both positive (protein, fibre, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts) and negative (sugars, saturated fats, salt and calories) elements of a food.
According to the report of the Commission, front-of-pack schemes are likely to help consumers to make health-conscious food choices.
Schemes using colour-coding seem most promising in improving the nutritional quality of food choices. However, at this stage, no specific scheme is recommended. The Commission concludes that it is appropriate to introduce a harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling at EU-level and wishes to do so before the end of 2022.
Nonetheless, at least seven EU Member States – Italy, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Romania – have already indicated that if a new harmonised front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme was adopted, it should stick to the wording of the FIC Regulation, i.e.: provide factual information on the individual nutrients contained in a product and, therefore, any scheme that would provide an overall evaluation of a food must be excluded.
They have also advocated exempting products with protected origin and single ingredients products. In addition, they are of the opinion that the selected scheme should be based on the actual daily intake rather than on the generic threshold of 100g/100ml, in order to avoid penalization of foods that are usually consumed in small amount, like olive oil. This position is clearly against the Nutri-Score scheme, adopted and/or supported by several other Member States, among others, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
In short, this is not an auspicious sign for reaching a consensus on harmonised front-of-pack nutrition labelling before end of 2022, as planned by the Commission.