In the dialogue between scientists, MEPs and citizens the French government is accused of acting in its own interest by supporting the Nutri Score nutrition label being on the front of the packaging. “It’s no secret” – says Spanish MEP Adrian Vasquez Lazara. “I hope that the European Commission will not fall into the trap” – he adds.
The Nutri Score system was inaugurated on the French market in 2017. Since then has been accepted by Belgium, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg and is praised by some for its “beneficial effects on consumers’ food choices”.
Others, including manufacturers of traditional foods like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Roquefort and olive oil claim that the Nutri Score algorithm discriminates foods basing on their nutritional composition.
Now in a dialogue between scientists, MEPs and citizens opponents of Nutri Score have raised another concern that France’s support for FOP is based on self-interest.
Nutri Score “property of the French State”.
Nutri Score rates foods from -15 for the “healthiest”” product to +40 for those that are “less healthy”. Based on this evaluation the product receives a letter with the appropriate color code from dark green (A) to dark red (F). The algorithm is based on the standard amount (100g or 100ml) of the product.
The nutrition label has attracted considerable attention since the European Commission committed to proposing a mandatory FOP labelling scheme by the end of 2022. It is not yet known what format this label will take, but apparently the Nutri Score is the preferred candidate.
Speakers at the online meeting hosted by think-tank Farm Europe and subsidiary Eat Europe were largely opposed to Nutri Score. Among the arguments expressed against the labelling system was concern about the management of the Nutri-Score and its alleged benefits to large food producers. Nutri-Score was developed in 2017 by the French public health agency Sante’ Publique France which, as the speakers pointed out, means it is “owned by the French state”.
For example, Spanish MEP Adrian Vazquez Lazara told the delegates that he was “really concerned” about the number of member states that have adopted the programme or, as he put it, “are following the trend”. “And I’m worried too because it will be one of the priorities of the French presidency”. Lazara continued: “It is no secret that Nutri-Score is supported by the French government to benefit their large conglomerates in the food sector in France. It’s no secret”. “It is on this basis that I hope the European Commission will not fall into the trap and will also consider other options (food labelling).
Professor Luis Gonzalez Vaque, director for food and agrarian policy at the Fundacio’ Triptolemos in Spain, is also a Nutri-Score sceptic. During the Farm Europe & Eat Europe expressed concern that the Member States which adopted the Nutri-Score may not have considered how France is involved in this programme. “I would like to remind those countries, Germany and others, that Nutri-Score is owned by the French state” – he told the delegates.
Vaque suggested that by creating the labelling scheme France is essentially the owner of the algorithm. “My main concern is that I cannot accept anything that comes from this dictatorship of algorithms and, let us be honest, algorithms can also be manipulated. In the future, instead of artificial intelligence, everything will be in the hands of these manipulated algorithms. The professor continued: “I don’t know if we should be talking about natural intelligence or natural stupidity or just fraud. I am not convincing anyone but I would like to say that the Nutri-Score is not acceptable.”
Does the label favour Big Food?
Is the argument that Nutri-Score favours Big Food over artisan producers justified? For the Belgian No Nutri-Score alliance the answer is definitely “yes”. “The label goes far beyond the goal of a healthy diet benefiting only large chains” – said founder Luciano Stella. “Citizens and consumers in the EU unfortunately do not benefit from Nutri-Score”.
According to Lazar MEP, the Nutri-Score is nothing more than a “marketing tool”. “This designation is in conflict with Mediterranean products which are already protected by Protected Designation of Origin. It is also contrary to some products such as honey, for example” he stressed. “Nutri-Score does not work. Its simplistic algorithm only makes consumers make mistakes.”
Reaction: “These accusations are completely ridiculous”
Nutri-Score was created by Sante’ Publique France based on the work of Serge Hercberg, professor of nutrition at the Faculty of Medicine of the Sorbonne Paris Nord University. While Sante ‘Publique France did not respond to a request for comment before publication, professor Hercberg told Food Navigator that accusations that France supports Nutri-Score in its own interests are completely absurd.
And finally, the scientist stressed that, contrary to suggestions that Nutri-Score is owned by France, the labelling system is in fact protected at European level.
“Nutri-Score is not “owned” by the French government. The brand is protected at European level with exact specifications available on the Sante’ Publique France website to avoid misuse or diversion but is open and available to all countries and food companies at no charge.”