French consumer association UFC-Que Choisir has joined up with six other associations - in a group named the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) - to demand that the European Commission rethink the system.
The other associations are: Test-Achat (Belgium), VZBV (Germany), Consumentenbond (Holland), Federajca Konsumentow (Poland) and EKPIZO (Greece).
The “Pro-Nutri-Score” campaign group is aiming to make the “Nutri-Score” food labelling system mandatory on all consumer food packaging, “in a bid to guarantee high-quality nutritional information to European consumers, and to protect their health”.
The Nutri-Score system has been used by companies voluntarily in France since 2017, since the introduction of the health law brought in by then-health minister Marisol Touraine. It is also used in Belgium and in Spain.
Created by nutrition specialist, Serge Hercberg, the system aims to make it very easy for consumers to see, at a glance, how healthy their food is. It scores the healthiness of food from most healthy to least healthy - from A to E respectively, using a “traffic light” system of colours from dark green (A) to red (E).
It takes into account the amount of fat, salt and sugar contained within a food, and scores accordingly.
Lancement de l'initiative européenne citoyenne #PRONUTRISCORE enregistrée sur le site de la CE: 1 million de signatures nécessaires dans au moins 7 pays pour rendre obligatoire le #Nutriscore en Europe. Signez la pétition et diffusez la autour de vous ! https://t.co/JpWMT6qRAq pic.twitter.com/NnvhCnVa4K— Hercberg Serge (@HercbergS) May 20, 2019
Yet, some critics suggest that it gives a false impression of some foods, such as olive oil, which scores relatively badly (B-C), due to its high fat content, but is often described as a healthy food.
Other critics say that some foods can do well on the Nutri-Score but actually contain little nutritional value overall, such as low-calorie fizzy drinks with artificial sweetener.
The Assemblée Nationale voted in February this year to make the Nutri-Score mandatory on all food advertising (although manufacturers and companies can still pay a fee to remove it). Yet, it is not obligatory for companies to display the score on packaging, due to current European Commission laws.
In France, a 2018 study by food quality agency l’Observatoire de la Qualité et de l’Alimentation (OQALI) found that of 28 food and drink sectors studied, only seven had 10% of products or more that were using the Nutri-Score on their packaging.
This included around 20% of compotes, 12% of ready meals, and 17% of purees and potato-based products. Most of these were sold by big brands such as Intermarché, Leclerc and Auchan.
The Nutri-Score system was found on just 4% of dairy products, 4% of breakfast cereals, 3% of biscuits and cakes, and 1.9% of fizzy drinks. Brands who have come out against the scheme include Coca-Cola, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, and Unilever.
Olivier Andrault, head of food and nutrition at UFC-Que Choisir, said: “It is mainly foods that have the best Nutri-score [that show it], often due to the significant presence of vegetables.”
The exception is the French brand Fleury Michon, which has adopted the system uniformly across all of its products.
The European Union has regulated the nutritional labelling of food since 2006, with new rules introduced in 2011 requiring clear labelling of the calories, fat, sugar, and salt contained within all food.
Previously, the system was regulated nationally, but the spread of the European market required standardisation across the bloc. National variations still apply, however.
The UK was the first country to bring in the “traffic light” system, which is similar to that used on the Nutri-Score (green to red).
Yet, in France and Italy, the traffic light system was fought against by food producers, who sought to “defend gastronomy and denounce the discrimination of food products,” according to sociology researcher, Laure Séguy.
In 2011, France abandoned a traffic light system in favour of simply listing the “RDA (recommended daily allowance)” values on food packaging (repère nutritionnel journalier, RNJ, in French).
Ms Séguy said: “[In France now] there is no colour code, it is a lot more vague; we just have a lot of difficult-to-understand numbers.”
Mr Andrault said: “Even in 2011, consumer associations had promised comprehensive labelling for everyone. The complexity of the tables on labelling meant that 82% of consumers said they did not understand them, which ultimately led to too-high consumption of foods that are bad for health, leading to a rise in obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
“At the time, the European Commission did not listen to us and preferred to play around and compromise between the different stakeholders; the State, producers, and consumers.”
Mr Andrault added: “Things have changed. We can now look to several scientific studies that prove [the positive value] of the Nutri-Score. Worries over the contents of food are now more significant, and consumers are taking more care over what they are eating.
“We must make the Commission turn towards the subject again.”
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