Can food labelling help achieve the European Union’s green ambitions?

20 Februari 2020

With the revelation the European Union has been providing financing for agricultural campaigns, including those promoting meat consumption, Europe’s need to review its environmental and food policies has gained a new kind of urgency. The provocative news comes at a time when Brussels is trying to slash CO2 emissions via food policy, particularly the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F) which aims to make Europe’s food systems more sustainable for the planet and healthy for the 447 million people who live in the 27 EU member states.

Weighing in at more than 10 percent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, studies have estimated methane from the agriculture sector could account for 80 percent of the permissible greenhouse gas limit by 2050 in the world. However, livestock farming has been a frequently overlooked factor in reducing CO2 emissions and achieving climate goals, as the focus has mostly been on reducing fossil fuel dependency.

Given that the biggest culprit behind these agricultural emissions is the meat and dairy industry, securing emissions reductions in this sector means reducing Europe’s demand for animal products. Proposed solutions include a “sustainability tax” on meat products, which would increase the cost of meat to offset carbon produced by farming. But considering the controversy this proposal has sparked, it’s unlikely to be accepted by all EU member states.

Changing Europe’s dietary habits?

At present, the European Union’s consumption of meat and dairy is 70 percent higher than the WHO recommends and double the global average. A meat tax, however, could disproportionally disadvantage low-income households and may not be the most equitable way to achieve a change in dietary habits. Instead, consumers could be encouraged to reduce meat intake by emphasizing the health benefits of doing so through an appropriate front-of-package (FOP) labelling system.

As it turns out, the F2F strategy includes a call for precisely such a system, although it’s not clear what form this label should take. One of the proposed systems, Nutri-Score, has been partially implemented in countries including France on a voluntary basis, given that the necessary European regulations for a mandatory FOP label are not yet in place. Even so, as a result of the vocal support the French government has given to Nutri-Score, a few food manufacturers, including Danone and most recently PepsiCo, have already adopted it.

Even as the system catches on in France and its neighbouring markets, the usefulness of Nutri-Score as an informative system has since been called into question. The crux of the criticism surrounds Nutri-Score’s “traffic-light” approach, according to which an algorithm penalizes foods for containing nutrients like saturated fats, sugars and sodium, while allocating positive points for protein, fruit and fibre content. Foods are then assigned a color-coded label, ranging from a green “A” label for the healthiest products and a red “E” for the ones Nutri-Score’s algorithm considers the least healthy.

That framework has serious environmental implications. High-protein foods, such as those containing beef or pork, tend to receive more positive “green” scores because Nutri-Score’s algorithm considers them inherently healthy – even if they’re highly processed or the product of factory farming. By doing so, customers could be subtly encouraged to increase their meat consumption in direct contradiction to the EU’s carbon emission goals.

An Italian alternative

 These points of contention are difficult to dismiss at a time when the EU wants to show how serious it is about “deep” decarbonization and help citizens adopt a more balanced diet. To address Nutri-Score’s alleged shortfalls, Italy has proposed an alternative FOP labelling system designed to contextualize foods by comparing them against the daily recommended amounts of nutrients they provide.

This system, called Nutrinform, is based on the food pyramid method of consuming all food groups in appropriate quantities. Using a charging “battery” to visualize the nutrient content of foods, the charged portion represents the percentage of that nutrient in the product as compared to the EU’s daily recommended intake. By representing information through average portion sizes and as percentages of recommended intakes, the system proports to incentivize a more balanced diet, while also helping consumers track their daily nutritional goals.

Broader stakes for Brussels

The debate between opponents and advocates of systems like Nutri-Score and Nutrinform has made it clear that an effective front label much prove its ability to differentiate between food groups and recognize that dietary needs are complex. Considerably more debate is likely required before Brussels will be ready to decide which labelling system it wants to make mandatory across the EU.

Given the realities of the relationship between Europe’s agricultural sector and the continent’s carbon footprint, member states will have to consider the needs of the climate as well as the dietary needs of their citizens. Instead of spending tens of millions of Euros to promote meat consumption, FOP labelling represents an important opportunity to shift European dietary habits in a direction that is not only healthier, but also more sustainable.

Image credit: Tim Green/Flickr

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