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Ahead of EU Presidency, France’s Flagship Nutri-Score Label Becomes a Diplomatic Headache

As the French government prepares to take up the presidency of the Council of the European Union starting January 1st, one of France’s key initiatives for EU public health – making the five-color Nutri-Score nutritional label the standard across all of Europe – has gone from boon to diplomatic boondoggle.

To France’s south, politicians, food producers, and scientists in both Spain and Italy see the Nutri-Score system as an assault not just on their centuries-old Mediterranean gastronomic traditions, but also on established nutritional science. With France’s own cheesemakers now rising up against Nutri-Score as well, it’s unclear how much Emmanuel Macron – who needs the agricultural sector’s support as he goes up for re-election next year – will want to insist on the controversial label.

Indeed, according to Italian sources, the French leader is already considering dropping his support for EU-wide implementation of Nutri-Score, after Mario Draghi, Italy’s premier, raised the issue directly during the signing of the Franco-Italian Quirinale Treaty in November.

Problems in the system

In response to a request from the Ministry of Health, Nutri-Score was first devised and implemented by the French public health agency, Santé publique France, in 2017. Since then, it has been endorsed by several other EU member states, including Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain. With France taking up the presidency of the EU Council at the start of next year, and with the European Commission targeting the introduction of a mandatory front-of-pack (FOP) labeling system across the bloc by the end of 2022, observers in Brussels have long expected Paris to use the occasion to try and push Nutri-Score across the finish line represented by EU-wide adoption.

However, many EU member states, including some of those ostensibly planning to use the label, are not convinced Nutri-Score is fit for purpose. Chief among their concerns is the fact the system ranks foods based on composition per 100g, rather than per portion or as part of an overall diet. What’s more, Nutri-Score also neglects to factor in the level of processing of the foods being assessed or the presence of many key nutrients, which results in fast food products receiving better grades than time-honored European specialties.

According to one report in Spain, over half of foods with a “B” grade and over a fifth of those rated “A” are ultra-processed. In practice, this means that soft drinks like Coca-Cola Zero are graded more highly than olive oil, while McDonald’s fries fare better than parmesan cheese on the Nutri-Score register.

Italy on the offensive

Understandably, this has upset EU countries which produce iconic staples of the Mediterranean diet. Italy has been the most vocal opponent of the endeavor thus far, with Dr. Francesco Visioli of the University of Padua arguing that “nutrition is not pharmacology” and that FOP labeling should evaluate the whole of an individual’s diet, rather than an arbitrary measure of a single ingredient. To this end, the Italian government is promoting its own rival FOP system, named Nutrinform, which provides more detailed data about the nutrients contained in food products.

This line of argument has recently been taken up by Italian Minister of Agriculture Stefano Patuanelli, who derides Nutri-Score for “conditioning the consumer instead of informing the public.” Patuanelli insists that Italy remain united in its opposition to Nutri-Score, a stance backed up by Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month. Nor are the Italians alone in Europe; instead, they’ve aligned themselves with other EU countries concerned about the arbitrary algorithm behind Nutri-Score.

Dissent within the ranks

One of those like-minded allies is Spain, where Nutri-Score is already being used by some brands on a voluntary basis. The Spanish government, and in particular Minister of Consumer Affairs Alberto Garzón, had planned to implement the system in the first four months of 2021 but has been forced to postpone that date due to growing resistance from industry, academia, and Garzón’s own colleagues, most notably Minister of Agriculture Luis Planas. Speaking at a recent event alongside Dr. Visioli, the prominent Spanish nutritional scientist Dr. Ramon Estruch decried Nutri-Score for not being grounded in sound nutritional science, while the agricultural and food sectors in Spain also steadfastly oppose the label.

Disconcertingly for Paris, there is now also trouble brewing at home. Although the French government stands accused of favoring the system to advance its own conglomerates’ interests, French Minister of Agriculture and Food Julien Denormandie has conceded the methodology behind Nutri-Score should be reviewed to avoid penalizing certain products. The concession is a direct response to protests from the makers of Roquefort and other French cheeses, which receive the lowest scores of “D” and “E” on the FOP scale. Accusing Nutri-Score of “defying heritage,” Roquefort manufacturers have delivered a blow to political support for the system within the French state.

Crunch time for Macron

With all these factors at play, the upcoming French EU Council Presidency should make for interesting viewing with regards to FOP labeling. Macron might have hoped that instituting the system across the entire bloc would represent a mere formality, but the assertive stance adopted by Italy and growing resistance in other countries – including France itself – now makes it anything but. At present, the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) is holding a public consultation on the subject, the results of which are likely to intensify the debate still further.

With his own re-election on the horizon, Macron cannot afford to ignore the opposition to Nutri-Score both inside and outside France, especially given support for his presidency from France’s influential agricultural community could play a decisive role in the campaign. As the recent news reports from the Quirinale suggest, the “traffic light” FOP system championed by France might run into its own stoplight over the year to come.