EmDee/Wikimedia; Photo illustration by John Lyman



As the World Cooks, Brussels is Pursuing Misguided Policies

The time for niceties is over. Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that the softer era of global warming is now behind us and that now “the era of global boiling has arrived.” He went on to say, “Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it’s just the beginning.” Guterres’s less-than-cheery warning comes on the heels of the announcement that the last three weeks of July were the hottest since records began. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, echoed similar sentiments. “The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever before. Climate action is not a luxury but a must.”

While the world is literally on fire, the European Union is having trouble aligning its policymaking with the times, choosing instead to legislate on far less important and impactful issues. A topic of debate that encapsulates the European Union’s preference to legislate on comparatively unimportant matters, is the Front of Package (FOP) food label as the EU targets food label harmonization. A popular iteration of the FOP food label is the French version called Nutri-Score. The system labels and ranks foods from supposedly the healthiest to the least healthy with an associated letter grade (A-E) as well as a color from green to red.

The concept of helping people to make healthy choices is objectively an admirable feat. The issue, however, is when it is so poorly executed that it makes choices more confusing for consumers and is often even blatantly misleading. The algorithm used by Nutri-Score has come under fire for exactly that, being misleading.

While there are many examples to choose from to illustrate the misinformation of Nutri-Score, a particularly pertinent example is that of prunes. With the most recent iteration of the Nutri-Score algorithm, prunes were downgraded from an A grade to a C grade. A rather surprising turn of events, given that prunes, are known to help digestion, they are high in potassium, lower cholesterol levels, and provide a slew of important vitamins and minerals.

The justification for a completely unprocessed fruit receiving such a low grade? Prunes have too much sugar. The labeling leads to completely misleading information, yes prunes have sugar, as do all fruits, however, there is a fundamental difference between natural sugar and added sugar. It’s not difficult to understand how a consumer could be confused when at the supermarket debating what to buy. On the one hand, prunes now have a C grade, but on the other hand, governments have always preached the importance of consuming fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet. Nutri-Scores fails to achieve its core goal of helping consumers make better choices, but beyond that, it harms farmers, and it is often in direct contradiction with the national governments.

Countries turning the page on Nutri-Score

This has led certain countries to reconsider the added value of Nutri-Score. In Germany for example, a German regulator has taken over “market surveillance and abuse tracking” of Nutri-Score. The implication is that without external surveillance there is likely to be abuse. Other countries have either already turned the page on Nutri-Score or are in the process of turning said page. Already in May, Romania banned Nutri-Score. The decision of the Romanian National Authority for Consumers Protection (ANPC) now forbids the Nutri-Score label from appearing on food packages sold to the public citing the confusion the label can cause for consumers.

An even stronger sign of the problems associated with Nutri-Score is that now even Switzerland is considering walking away from Nutri-Score. An impactful sign to all of Europe regarding the status of the FOP label, after having adopted Nutri-Score it could become the first country to walk back its choice and overturn the adoption. A motion was brought forward by the Commission of Science, Education, and Culture which asked the representatives to consider the potential negative outcomes of the Nutri-Score adoption, the motion also references the fact that a healthy diet is based on a broad and varied approach to eating as well as an awareness of serving size. These aspects are woefully neglected by Nutri-Score.

Prioritize the things that actually matter

Another pressing variable that Nutri-Score completely ignores is the environment and the impact of our food on the planet. In this day and age, the world is both literally on fire – wildfires raging through Italy and its Mediterranean neighbors – and figuratively on fire with temperatures smashing records everywhere. It’s clear that Mother Nature is trying to convey to us the gravity of the climate crisis in which we find ourselves.

Should the EU wish to actually show to its constituents its commitment to legislating on the most pressuring issues currently facing the bloc, like extreme heat, and wildfire, it would do well to focus on policies that do their best to minimize the impact of said issues on not only the population but also on the planet. For example, encouraging landowners to implement mosaic-like land management, where forests are bordered by farms, orchards, and managed green areas. The mosaic strategy allows for larger wildfires to be impeded and additionally contributes to a richer biodiversity. In regard to the “roasting” heat the Global North has been experiencing this summer, even basic strategies of prioritizing increased greenery in cities, offering shady places for people to hide from the sun, or altering working hours so that people aren’t in office buildings during peak heat with no air conditioning.

Ultimately, living through this summer, it is clear that something must be done. How we move forward is up to us and our politicians. However, it should be extremely clear that now is the time to face the issue of climate change (or boiling) head-on, rather than giving a C grade to a prune.