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.
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.The fact that agri-food lobbies exercise enormous power in Brussels is nothing new. Over the years, deep pockets, easy access to policymakers and vigorous campaigns have allowed them to shape and influence European Union food regulations.
Europe to a significant degree. When the Food Consumer Information (FIC) Rule was first proposed more than a decade ago, the food industry launched a vigorous and ultimately successful lobbying campaign. to prevent color-coded nutrition labels on the front of packaging across the EU. (FOPNL). Fast forward to 2023 and it looks like the second chance to introduce such a tool may unfortunately meet the same fate. The European Commission is expected to present a proposal to make FOPNL mandatory at EU level by the end of 2022. Yet amid a wave of lobbying and angry protests from agribusiness interests, the proposal is gathering dust in Berlaymont.
The imbalance is clear The Europe-wide campaign against food nutrition labels – especially the most effective, color-coded “Nutri-Score” labels – has been public and vocal. What’s less clear is who is lobbying policymakers behind the scenes or what they are saying. However, thanks to a request for access to documents from Foodwatch EU, including the 2022 meetings of the Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) and Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), we have a little better idea of what happened behind closed doors. The clear imbalance between commercial and civil society actors is evident: the number of meetings with industry far exceeds the number of meetings with NGOs. While DG SANTE met with food industry stakeholders 17 times in 2022, there were only two meetings with civil society and one of them was simply the participation of Commission officials in event.
DG AGRI appears to be the main target of lobbying activity in Italy. Representatives of the Italian authorities, including the Minister of Agriculture, met briefly with the staff of DG AGRI, the cabinet and the Commissioner himself. Strongest opponent The meeting minutes also highlight the unique pressures and arguments facing policymakers. This does not always correspond to what is said in public. Whether it’s Parma’s breaded ham or Ferrero’s prepared chocolate snacks, some Italian products won’t score top marks with color-coded labels. And the Italian government and agri-food lobbies are Nutri-Score’s most fervent opponents. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to know where the Italian government ends and the agri-food associations begin. In October 2022, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU even requested a joint meeting with the Federalimentare (Italian food industry federation) and the DG AGRI chief of staff.
Fedalimentare’s representative is the former Italian ambassador. They had a meeting with the cabinet three weeks later on October 27. Minutes show they told the cabinet that there was no scientific evidence to support Nutri-Score and that it was not useful to consumers. However, a large amount of independent scientific research (more than 100 peer-reviewed articles) clearly demonstrates that this is the most effective and useful FOPNL for consumers. On the other hand, the Italian NutrInform brand, which the Italian permanent representative describes as “well scientifically based” is the subject of four small studies, three of which were funded by Federalmentare. Coldiretti, an Italian agri-food lobby, has publicly defended NutrInform, but in a meeting with DG SANTE in September 2022 admitted that it “has not been properly regulated and used”. not simple to use”. No declaration The commissioner’s office has not publicly stated that the October 27 meeting took place. Following the 2014 commission decision to publish information about meetings of commission members with independent organizations or institutions, although it is not necessary to declare meetings with representatives of Member States. recruited individuals.
The next day, unusually, a new meeting took place between the staff of DG AGRI, the Permanent Representation of Italy and the Federalimentare, in which the same misleading arguments were made. However, the minutes note that DG AGRI’s label analysis is “less thorough” and that “Nutri-Score may be acceptable if existing defects in the algorithm can be corrected.” However, on November 4, DG AGRI’s chief of staff made it clear to his counterpart at DG SANTE that the Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, did not support Nutri-Score, saying that “a single score most… will be misleading and superficial.” And the proposal expected weeks later was never published. Essential tools It has been demonstrated, especially in trials conducted in supermarkets, that Nutri-Score has a modest but clear effect in improving the nutritional quality of consumers’ shopping carts. Consumer information is a vital tool to prevent obesity and authorities need to urgently take bolder steps to help consumers adopt healthier, sustainable diets. than. From restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, to changing the way supermarkets deliver certain foods and drinks to shoppers, and addressing the affordability of healthy foods Rather, we need serious ambition to change the food environment.
That a misleading behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign is preventing the commission from releasing its food labeling proposal is disappointing, to say the least. Now that the commission has failed to keep its promise, it is time to allow Member States the freedom to introduce their own mandatory FOPNL, so that at least some consumers can benefit from the This useful tool when they buy food.