Lobbyists turned the European Commission’s food-information plans on their head—to the detriment of consumers.
That agri-food lobbyists wield enormous power in Brussels is not news. Over the years, their deep pockets, ready access to policy-makers and forceful campaigns have allowed them to shape and influence European Union food rules to a considerable degree.
When the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulation was first on the table well over a decade ago, the food industry launched an intense and ultimately successful lobbying campaign to block an EU-wide, colour-coded, front-of-pack nutrition label (FOPNL). Fast forward to 2023 and it looks as if the second opportunity to introduce such a tool could unfortunately succumb to a similar fate.
The European Commission was due to introduce a proposal for a mandatory EU-wide FOPNL by the end of 2022. Yet, amid a barrage of lobbying and angry protests from agri-food interests, the proposal is gathering dust in the Berlaymont.
The campaign against an EU-wide food nutrition label—especially the most effective, the interpretive colour-coded ‘Nutri-Score’—has been open and vociferous. Less clear has been who has been lobbying policy-makers behind the scenes or just what they have been saying. Thanks however to an access-to-documents request by Foodwatch EU, covering meetings in 2022 by the commission directorates-general for agriculture and rural development (DG AGRI) and health and food safety (DG SANTE), we have a slightly better idea of what happened behind closed doors.
The clear imbalance between commercial actors and civil society jumps out: the number of meetings with industry far outweighs those with non-governmental organisations. Whereas DG SANTE met food-industry stakeholders 17 times in 2022, there were just two meetings with civil society—and one of those was simply commission officials attending an event.
DG AGRI seems to have been the main target of Italian lobbying. Representatives of the Italian authorities, including the minister of agriculture, met DG AGRI employees, the cabinet and the commissioner himself within a short timeframe.
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The minutes of the meetings also shed some light on the pressures and the arguments made privately to policy-makers. These do not always tally with what was being said in public.
Whether it is salty ham from Parma or processed chocolate snacks from Ferrero, certain Italian products would not achieve top marks from a colour-coded label. And the Italian government and its agri-food lobbies have been the strongest opponents of the Nutri-Score.
Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to know where the Italian authorities end and the agri-food associations begin. In October 2022 the Italian permanent representative to the EU even requested a joint meeting with Federalimentare (the Italian federation of food industries) and the head of cabinet in DG AGRI. The representative from Federalimentare was a former Italian ambassador.
They got that meeting with the cabinet just three weeks later, on October 27th. The minutes show they told the cabinet there was no scientific evidence to support the Nutri-Score and that it was not useful for consumers. Yet a significant body of independent scientific research—more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and counting—clearly demonstrates that it is the most effective and useful FOPNL for consumers.
The Italian NutrInform label, which the Italian permanent representative described as ‘having a strong scientific foundation’, has by contrast been the subject of a paltry four studies—three funded by Federalimentare. Coldiretti, an Italian agri-food lobby, was a cheerleader for the NutrInform in public but in a meeting with DG SANTE in September 2022 admitted it ‘was not yet properly adapted and not as simple to use’.
The commissioner’s cabinet did not publicly declare that the meeting on October 27th had taken place. Although meetings with representatives of member states do not have to be declared, it should have at least been declared that the cabinet had met Federalimentare, according to a commission decision of 2014 on the publication of information on commission members’ meetings with organisations or self-employed individuals.
The next day, unusually, a further meeting took place between DG AGRI employees, the Italian permanent representation and Federalimentare, where the same misleading arguments were made. The minutes note however that DG AGRI’s analysis of the label was ‘less radical’ and ‘Nutri-Score could be acceptable if the existing flaws in the algorithm could be fixed’.
Yet on November 4th the head of cabinet in DG AGRI made clear to his counterpart at DG SANTE that the agriculture commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, did not support the Nutri-Score, claiming that ‘a single score … would be misleading and superficial’. And the proposal, due just weeks later, never appeared.
The Nutri-Score has been proven, including in supermarket trials, to have a small yet tangible effect in improving the nutritional quality of consumers’ shopping baskets. Consumer information is an essential tool to prevent obesity and there are so many bolder actions which authorities urgently need to take to help consumers go for healthier, more sustainable diets.
From restricting marketing of unhealthy foods to children to transforming the way supermarkets push certain foods and beverages to shoppers and tackling the affordability of healthier foods, serious ambition is needed to change our food environments. That a misleading, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign means that the commission cannot even publish a proposal for a food label is disappointing to say the least.
Now that the commission has failed to fulfill its own promise, it is high time it allowed member states the freedom to introduce their own mandatory FOPNL—so at least some consumers can benefit from this useful tool when they are buying food.
This first appeared on the BEUC blog
Emma Calvert is a senior food policy officer at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) in Brussels. She previously worked at the European Parliament for six years for MEPs on the Environment, Food Safety and Public Health committee.