News 17.06.2024

Strategies used by the agro-industrial lobby against a mandatory Nutri-Score

  • Traffic light labels

For years, the agri-food industry lobby has opposed mandatory nutrition labeling in Europe. Their well-planned campaign aims to stop the European Commission from implementing the colorful label system.

The Nutri-Score provides clear, transparent information on food, accessible on the front of the packaging, and literally puts less healthy products in the red – products that are widely sold in supermarkets. The agri-food industry has deployed a legion of strategies against the little nutrition label, which foodwatch has actively condemned: 

  • Obstructing mandatory nutrition labelling on the political stage: even before Nutri-Score was implemented, from the very first European discussion on introducing mandatory European nutrition labelling in 2004, the industry lobby has opposed it in the corridors of power of European institutions. Over a billion euros have been invested to influence European decisions on consumer information, in particular the review of the European Food Information to Consumers  regulation. foodwatch is continuing to investigate why the FIC legislation did not come out in December 2022 and to date has revealed high level meetings between the Italian Embassy and the Commissioner for Agriculture.
  • Lobbying for labelling favourable to the industry: when it became apparent that it could no longer block the plan for a nutrition label, the agri-food industry lobbied actively to promote alternative labelling models such as the Evolved Nutrition Label from Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Mondelez and PepsiCo or the Italian NutrInform Battery system. These models are counter-intuitive and do not allow consumers to see a food’s nutritional values at a glance; worse, they can mislead consumers about the nutritional reality of foods.
  • Taking advantage of the voluntary nature of Nutri-Score to decline to display it on products: as Nutri-Score is not mandatory, companies choose to display it voluntarily. To the detriment of consumer information on the shelves, some industry heavyweights do not display it on their packaging. A study by consumer group UFC Que Choisir has highlighted the significant limitations of voluntary Nutri-Score labelling: “Junk food leaders stubbornly refuse to display it on products of theirs which generally have a low score.”  
In the history of Nutri-Score, lobbies have practised disinformation on a grand scale to put their profits before public health.
Audrey Morice Campaigner at foodwatch France

Big players against Nutri-Score

More interested in defending their own economic and financial interests than consumer health, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever have fought any nutrition labelling system proposed by scientists since day one. Since then, in the face of science and market demand, as well as pressure from consumer associations like foodwatch, Nestlé has got behind Nutri-Score. However, other big agri-food producers have swollen the ranks of its detractors in France, from Lactalis,  the world dairy number 1, and its leading brands (Président, Société, Lou Pérac, Salakis, etc.), and Savencia (Roquefort Papillon, Etorki, Bresse Bleu, etc.) to Bel (La Vache Qui Rit, Boursin, Kiri, etc.) which, counter to scientific recommendations, still refuse to display the label on their products. These cheese heavyweights play the game from both sides, using traditional cheese to protect their business in other, ultra-processed products at the same time – products that are sometimes targeted at children and which are far removed from traditional produce and expertise. 

FoodDrinkEurope is similarly active at a European level, a lobby group which has well known brands hidden behind it like Kinder, Nutella, Ferrero Rocher (Ferrero group); Côte d’Or, LU, Milka, Oreo, Toblerone, TUC (Mondelez group); as well as Minute Maid, Fanta, Sprite and Coca-Cola. The same can also be said of powerful professional agricultural associations like Copa-Cogeca, relied on by cheese and processed meat manufacturers to defend their interests in Brussels.  

foodwatch dissects popular misconceptions about Nutri-Score to counter lobbyist strategies

Anything goes in this battle of influence, including peddling misinformation. Since it was introduced on the market, Nutri-Score’s enemies have used and abused fake news to pollute public debate and obstruct mandatory implementation of Nutri-Score in Europe. Focus on popular misconceptions that need to be unravelled.  

Nutri-Score is not based on solid scientific foundations

Let’s be clear about this straight away: the algorithm that underlies Nutri-Score is fully documented. More than 150 robust independent studies enjoying consensus support within the scientific community have demonstrated its effectiveness in both guiding consumer behaviour towards healthier choices and encouraging manufacturers to improve their products’ recipes. 

Nutri-Score does not take portion size into account, that’s a fact, but it’s nothing new. This is actually what makes it so powerful, and it’s the thing that bothers junk food manufacturers the most. Nutri-Score is based on a standard reference point per 100 g or 100 ml, imposed by European food regulations in 2011. This is the same standard reference that is used in the nutritional value table found on packaging, which provides valuable information on a product’s calorie, sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt content. 

Taking into account portion size would distort consumers’ judgement. Firstly, because it is difficult to assess precisely and therefore subject to interpretation. Secondly, because it varies widely depending on the specific energy consumption of each individual (weight, height, age, sex, physical activity, etc.). Thirdly, because nutritional balance is not assessed at the level of a meal or even a whole day. 

The Nutri-Score algorithm is an independent public health tool, used by manufacturers when they sign up to a charter under which they commit to using it on all their brand products. The algorithm cannot be reworked to suit the agri-food industry. 

Conversely, several studies have shown that Nutri-Score has encouraged manufacturers to improve their product recipes to get better scores: it’s the foods and shelves that change, not the algorithm developed on an independent scientific basis. 

A single, mandatory Nutri-Score undermines the Mediterranean diet and its local produce such as cured ham, olive oil or parmesan

What Nutri-Score’s opponents – deliberately? – forget to mention is that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet are based first and foremost on a diet focused on fruits and vegetables, alongside whole grains, with moderate consumption of animal proteins and sugary, salty and fatty products. 

It’s true that Nutri-Score penalises hams and cheeses with a high salt or saturated fat content, regardless of whether they are Italian, Spanish or French and whether or not they have a label of origin (PDO, PGI, etc.). Being linked to a local area or a gastronomic tradition has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of a food. Something isn’t healthy just because it’s traditional! A study by UFC Que Choisir showed that in France, two thirds of regional products got a good Nutri-Score rating, from Potée Auvergnate to Mogette de Vendée, Camargue rice or Cassoulet de Castelnaudary. 

A mandatory Nutri-Score will not make it possible to stop the obesity epidemic

Nutri-Score is not intended to resolve all nutrition or food-related problems (such as additives, pesticide residues or ultra-processing) on its own. No single tool can do this. World Health Organisation experts, paediatrician associations and diabetes specialist associations are unanimous: reliable nutrition labelling must be combined with targeted public policy to promote healthy eating habits (nutrition education, restricting junk food marketing to children, taxing fizzy drinks, mandatory standards in canteens, etc.) in order to tackle the increase in chronic illness in our societies effectively. These complementary measures are something that foodwatch pushes for in numerous campaigns. 

Nutri-Score: It’s a political battle to make it mandatory on packaging

The misleading strategies employed by the lobbies quickly became intertwined with Nutri-Score’s history at a European level, and with nationalist political manipulation. One year after the first plan for a colour-based nutrition label, the “traffic light system”, was introduced in the United Kingdom in 2004, the UK supermarket heavyweight Tesco proposed a complex alternative model. In 2006, manufacturers got on board and defeated the traffic light system, which, while adopted, remained voluntary. 

foodwatch mobilised to support the traffic light system: publishing reports, holding political events, carrying out email campaigns, supporting scientists. Our teams, from Brussels to Berlin, never stopped fighting. But in 2010, the European Parliament voted against mandatory labelling with the traffic light system in Europe. One year later, the lobbies even managed to get the review of the European regulation on food to make it impossible for a state to set a national requirement for the mandatory display of a nutrition label on the front of packaging, which meant that the fate of nutrition labelling was determined at a European level. However, they could not prevent the addition of nutritional value tables on packaging, an essential piece of transparency for the ongoing story as it made it possible to calculate the Nutri-Score. 

In 2017, three years after Nutri-Score began, France adopted it as a voluntary nutrition label. Coca-Cola, Unilever & Co began their counter-attack once again, developing another label: the “Evolved Nutrition Label” (ENL). With this label, even fatty, sugary chocolate spreads look healthy. After 12 months or so of scathing criticism, the companies withdrew this ineffective label. Belgium and Spain then adopted Nutri-Score in their turn. 

At a time when chronic illnesses linked to nutrition, such as obesity, diabetes, and some cancers, are exploding in Europe, Nutri-Score needs to be made mandatory on the front of products as a matter of urgency!
Audrey Morice, Campaigner at foodwatch France

Nutri-Score Under Fire

In May 2020, after Nutri-Score was adopted by Germany following a long battle by the German foodwatch teams, there was a marked turning point in the assault on Nutri-Score. When the European strategy on healthy, sustainable food was presented, establishing the principle of common standardised nutrition labelling in the European Union, FoodDrinkEurope advocated for purely voluntary (and therefore optional) nutrition labelling, “portion-based approaches”, or labels without colour coding, which foodwatch condemned in a colourful protest in Brussels. 

It was during this period that Italy took a nationalist turn and in the name of defending flagship products from its gastronomic tradition and land, it positioned itself at the forefront of the battle against Nutri-Score. Giorgia Meloni’s government and the Italian extreme right made it one of their campaign issues, denouncing a European plot against Italian products and the Mediterranean diet. The country even tried to impose its own nutrition labelling system, NutrInform. In spite of sound scientific arguments and strong societal demand, six other countries – Romania, the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Hungary and Cyprus – joined Italy and refused to adopt Nutri-Score. 

EU Hesitates on Nutri-Score Despite Scientific Consensus

However, scientists across Europe were largely convinced: 260 scientists and 20 medical associations from 32 different countries called on the European Commission to make it mandatory in March 2021. Like foodwatch, they warned against the efforts of the agri-food industry lobby and certain EU member states to discredit and block the label. 

But in 2022, when the European Commission was due to make a decision on the review of the consumer information regulation and make Nutri-Score mandatory, it announced a delay to the plan.

Unfortunately, to date it has still not made a decision, hiding behind a study on Nutri-Score which its Directorate-General for Health has apparently not yet provided, even though throughout Europe, numerous studies already prove its effectiveness. 

Sources and additional information