Front-of-pack nutrition labelling in the EU: proposals for a mandatory EU-wide label

Dr Nikhil Gokani, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex.

The European Commission published its Farm-to-Fork Strategy on 20 May 2020. In this, the Commission declared that to ‘empower consumers to make informed, healthy and sustainable food choices’, the Commission will propose harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FoPNL) by the fourth quarter of 2022.

As part of these plans, the Commission published an inception impact assessment and published two initiative Roadmaps: “Food labelling – revision of rules on information provided to consumers” and “Facilitating healthier food choices – establishing nutrient profiles”. Feedback on these opened on 23rd December 2020 and will close on 3rd February 2021.

In this post, Dr Nikhil Gokani, whose research explores the regulation of FoPNL, which was also the topic of his PhD, briefly sets out his views on how the EU should proceed with the regulation of FoPNL. To further develop the understanding of the regulatory issues involved, and bearing in mind the Commission’s target for legislative proposals, Dr Gokani and Prof Amandine Garde (Law & Non-Communicable Diseases Unit, University of Liverpool) are organising a conference on FoPNL – to explore the national, EU and international regulatory issues – which is provisionally scheduled for September 2021.

Back-of-pack nutrition labelling (BoPNL) does not sufficiently contribute to informing consumers, promoting healthier diets or tackling the rise in overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Evidence is clear that consumers find BoPNL confusing. They do not perceive nor understand BoPNL well, and they are unable to use this type of labelling effectively to help them make healthier food purchasing and consumption decisions. This is particularly so for consumers of lower socioeconomic groups.

Interpretive front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FoPNL) is an evidence-based intervention to inform consumers, help them make healthier food purchasing and consumption decisions, whilst encouraging manufacturers to reformulate products to make them healthier.

Effectively presented FoPNL is better perceived relative to BoPNL. Surveys have shown high levels of use, and research on various FoPNL schemes has shown improved trolley outcomes. FoPNL has a statistically significant effect in steering consumers’ choices towards healthier products, whilst encouraging product reformulation.

Interpretive FoPNL has consistently been shown to be most effective in improving health-related understanding, reducing processing time and improving purchasing intentions, with simpler schemes generally being better understood.

The EU should introduce a mandatory, interpretive EU-wide FoPNL scheme.

EU law, as it stands, precludes Member States from adopting mandatory FoPNL at national level (Regulation No 1169/2011 on food information to consumers and Regulation No 1924/2006 on health and nutrition claims) and does not effectively promote the voluntary adoption of evidence-based FoPNL schemes.

To be most effective, FoPNL should be mandatory for all food products. Any exceptions should be limited and only permitted where there are clear evidence-based justifications. The introduction of a mandatory pan-EU FoPNL scheme in the EU would help ensure a high level of consumer protection and public health while improving the functioning of the internal market. Moreover, this would be consistent with the EU’s obligations to protect consumers and their health, and to comply with fundamental rights as mandated by the EU Treaties and the EU Charter.

FoPNL should be: developed in a transparent manner; based on effective stakeholder engagement with conflicts of interest managed; effective in improving outcomes for all population sub-groups; supported by well-resourced education campaigns; encourage product reformulation; permit the comparison of products within and between food categories; monitored and evaluated for effectiveness; and reviewed periodically.

The presentation of EU-wide FoPNL

The evidence base supports the introduction of a mandatory, interpretive pan-EU FoPNL scheme. Hence, the EU should not move forward with FoPNL option 0 (“Baseline” ie business as usual) nor FoPNL option 1 (“Nutrient-specific labels – numerical” eg NutrInform). With FoPNL option 3 (“endorsement logos” eg Keyhole), consumers tend to over-estimate the healthiness of products, and there is insufficient research on the effectiveness of this type of FoPNL. By contrast, research has shown that option 2 (colour coded eg Traffic Light Labelling) and option 4 (graded indicators eg Nutri-Score) are effective in meeting public health objectives of increasing salience, improving understanding and improving purchasing intention as well as actual purchasing decisions.

Relative to other schemes in use in the EU, Nutri-Score presents a number of advantages which favour its adoption across the EU. Firstly, Nutri-Score is widely supported by a broad range of stakeholders, including many public health organisations and consumers themselves. Secondly, Nutri-Score has been evaluated in several large-scale studies evaluating perception and comprehension in French populations. It has been shown to improve understanding and lead to better basket outcomes, particularly with consumers from more vulnerable populations. Thirdly, the scheme has been adopted by several Member States, which would facilitate its extension to other EU Member States.

The nutrient profiling model underlying EU-wide FoPNL

It is a prerequisite that the development of interpretive FoPNL is based on an evidence-based nutrient profiling model. This model should encourage consumption of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains and other health-promoting food categories and ingredients; and discourage the consumption of fat (especially trans and saturated fatty acids), sugar (especially free sugar) and salt. Smaller portion sizes, energy density, level of processing and artificiality of ingredients may also be reflected in the model. The model, and the way FoPNL displays the classification derived from the model, should permit meaningful comparisons in order to encourage healthier substitutions both within and between categories.  The model should classify food based on a scoring system which provides continuous gradations of healthiness of the food in order to encourage continuing reformulation. It should be based on uniform reference values (100g/ml)

Nutri-Score is based on a nutrient profiling model which was originally developed in the UK and was found to be largely consistent with French nutrition recommendations. A diet, which is consistent with recommendations derived from the model, was found to result in improved health markers amongst the population. There is evidence that the Nutri-Score nutrient profiling model would also be effective for diverse European populations.

However, the model would need to be altered to address certain criticisms. To this end, EFSA should be tasked with developing an objective, evidence-based model free from undue industry interference. Alternatively, noting the Commission’s failure to adopt nutrient profiling for the purposes of Article 4(1) of Regulation No 1924/2006, the development of this nutrient profiling should be tasked to a scientific committee of independent experts from across the EU.

In the absence of a mandatory pan-EU FoPNL scheme, the EU should not prohibit mandatory national schemes.

The controversies surrounding the adoption of Regulation 1169/2011 and Regulation 1924/2006 have shown that reaching consensus across Member States is likely to be extremely difficult. There is a real risk that, in the absence of sufficient political will, the EU may fail to adopt a single pan-EU mandatory FoPNL scheme. It is therefore important that the Impact Assessment anticipates these difficulties and contains an additional FoPNL option exploring the implications of a partial harmonisation scheme whereby EU law would permit Member States to introduce effective mandatory national schemes, as noted in the Presidency Conclusions on front-of-pack nutrition labelling, nutrient profiles and origin labelling of 15 December 2020.

The nutrient profiling model should also be used to regulate the use of health and nutrition claims more effectively, as mandated by Regulation No 1924/2006.

The controversies surrounding the adoption of Regulation 1169/2011 and Regulation 1924/2006 have shown that reaching consensus across Member States is likely to be extremely difficult. There is a real risk that, in the absence of sufficient political will, the EU may fail to adopt a single pan-EU mandatory FoPNL scheme. It is therefore important that the Impact Assessment anticipates these difficulties and contains an additional FoPNL option exploring the implications of a partial harmonisation scheme whereby EU law would permit Member States to introduce effective mandatory national schemes, as noted in the Presidency Conclusions on front-of-pack nutrition labelling, nutrient profiles and origin labelling of 15 December 2020.

The use of health and nutrition claims is a marketing tool intended to encourage consumers to purchase certain products. As claims lead to an increase in consumption and overall energy intake, it is important that they do not mislead consumers and, in particular, that they do not mask the overall nutrition profile of food products. Under Article 4 of Regulation No 1924/2006, the Commission should have adopted an EU-wide nutrient profiling model to restrict the use of food claims on unhealthy products by 19 January 2009. The Commission should finally fulfil this obligation as a priority to ensure that businesses operate within a level playing field and consumers are finally protected from the most misleading forms of commercial food information. It would be logical for FoPNL and food claims to be based on the same underlying nutrient profiling model.

The EU should extend mandatory back-of-pack and mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling to alcohol.

It is extremely concerning that alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol are exempt from the requirement of displaying a nutrition declaration. Even when such a declaration is provided on a voluntary basis, it can be limited to an energy-only declaration in a non-tabular format.

There is increasing evidence that there is a deficit in consumer knowledge and understanding of the nutritional content of alcoholic beverages and the consequences of their consumption. Moreover, consumers are interested in alcohol nutrition labelling across Member States. In any event, the exemption is illogical bearing in mind that EU consumer law, and the EU Alcohol Strategy of 2006 more specifically, aims to ‘provide information to consumers to make informed choices’.

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