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24th Oct 2020

MEPs reject 'traffic light' food labels after €1bn lobby effort

MEPs on Wednesday (16 june) approved legislation revamping the way food and drinks are labelled, aiming to make how healthy or unhealthy a product is easily understandable by consumers who are often bewildered by the multiplicity of facts slapped on to the back of a can of Coke or a box of Cornflakes.

However, behind the scenes, one of the most expensive lobbying campaigns ever mounted in the European Union - at a cost of a whopping €1 billion according to transparency activists - has won the day, convincing euro-deputies to back the processed food industry's favoured option for new labelling instead of the system supported by medical associations and cancer, diabetes and anti-obesity advocates.

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  • Food nutritional guidelines, while widespread, have so far had little effect on overeating and poor dietary choice, according to researchers (Photo: Wikipedia)

At the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, MEPs rejected a simple 'traffic light' system, with red, amber and green warning labels marking out foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt.

Red essentially would mean 'enjoy it once in a while.' Amber would mean 'OK most of the time' And green would mean 'go for it.' A number of supermarkets already use this system.

Describing it as "simplistic," German Christian Democrat MEP Renate Sommer, who shepherded the legislation through the chamber, said: "Personally, I am pleased that MEPs did not support traffic light labelling, but I also feel that we can continue to improve the current proposal to better inform consumers."

Food producers, frightened that the labels would dissuade consumers from buying their products, argued that such a system unfairly stigmatised certain foods such as cheese, which would often be labelled green for its calcium content, but red for how fatty it can be.

Instead, the parliament backed the Guideline Daily Amounts system preferred by industry.

The new rules would put on the front-of-pack label the energy, fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates, with specific reference to sugars and salt content and explained in terms of the percentage of an adult's daily needs per 100ml, per 100g or per portion.

The vote is a major victory for the confederation of the food and drink industries of the EU (CIAA), which, according to Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based transparency NGO, spent some €1 billion opposing the traffic-light system, including TV commercials, lunchtime debates with MEPs and "voting recommendations" delivered to deputies.

The industry also commissioned a pair of studies on labelling from the "European Food Information Council," a body funded by the food industry. The studies primarily looked at the industry's prefered GDA system and made no comparison of it with the traffic light system.

Meanwhile, an Australian study on labelling that was independent of the industry found that people who read the traffic light labelling were five times more likely to be able to identify healthier food products than those that tried to understand the GDA system.

Obesity has tripled in Europe since the 1980s, according to the World Health Organisation, with rates still rising sharply, particularly among children. It is already responsible for two to eight percent of health costs and 10–13 percent of deaths, depending on the region.

Along with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, the main cause has been the growing reliance on energy-dense, big-portion, fast-food meals - the sort of product originally intended as the target of the European legislation, first proposed by the European Commission two years ago.

The widespread but often confusing presence of nutritional guidelines has done little to address the problems of overeating and poor dietary choice.

MEPs also voted to forbid the use of the traffic-light system at the national level and exempted alcohol from the legislation.

Many MEPs who opposed the GDA scheme, particularly from the Greens and the left of the house, still backed the legislation in the end, as they felt that the new rules were an improvement on what currently exists.

The rules also require that the location of where animals have been born, raised and slaughtered be placed on a product, in order to help consumers to decide whether to buy local products in order to reduce carbon emissions and discourage the lengthy transport of live animals. Meat from slaughter without stunning, as occurs in keeping with certain religious traditions, should also be labelled as such.

Country of origin labelling is already mandatory for beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables. MEPs extended this to all meat, poultry, and dairy products.

Milk that has been treated to last longer than seven days can no longer by called "fresh" milk and items that contain transfats, appetite-enhancers, sweeteners and nano-foods - products with bits of nano-particles present - will also have to be so labelled.

Carl Schlyter, a Swedish Green MEP, said: "The European Parliament today has taken a step forward in the direction of better consumer information, but missed the opportunity for a leap ... We deeply regret that parliament followed industry's lobbying efforts."

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