Six food majors are working on unified nutrition labels

Six food majors are working on unified nutrition labels

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling has long been a subject of fierce debate within the food industry - and between food companies and public health professionals. The launch of a coalition of multinational food and beverage companies aimed at fostering a harmonised approach across Europe, Ben Cooper writes, promises more of the same.

The launch of a partnership between six multinational food and beverage firms aimed at harmonising front-of-pack nutritional labelling across Europe shows again the capacity for the issue to spark debate and disagreement.

The six companies – Mars Inc, Mondelez International, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and Coca-Cola Co. – are advocating "a meaningful, consistent and single nutrition labelling scheme" for Europe that incorporates colour coding, or traffic lights, and classifies products by the level of key nutrients on a per portion rather than per 100g basis. The companies have launched a taskforce to look into integrating portion sizes into the existing colour-coded, reference-intake scheme used in the UK and Ireland.

A consensus on use of colours

On the face of it, the partnership represents further consensus on the question of the use of colours. Two of the companies – Mondelez and Unilever – had not adopted the UK government-backed voluntary traffic lights scheme, which was launched in 2013.

Mondelez public affairs director Francesco Tramontin describes the change of position as partly a concession to the prevailing view of many public health experts and partly a conversion.

"It's a combination of both," Tramontin tells just-food. Tramontin says there was an "element of concession" to the views of other stakeholders but insists the change of position on colours was also a response to consumer feedback. Unilever declined to speak on the issue, saying it was in its pre-results quiet period. The statement it issued at the time of the launch did not allude to the use of colours.

However, while the six may have found consensus on colour-coding, there is still divergence on this question among food companies in the UK and across Europe.

Indeed, FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the food sector in the EU, is at odds with the partnership. In response to the launch of the coalition, the organisation said: "FoodDrinkEurope and the majority of its members are not in favour of colour-coding as it can potentially be misleading and confusing for consumers", giving "the wrong impression that individual foods and ingredients are 'healthy' or 'unhealthy'".

Tramontin says he expects FoodDrinkEurope to "join the conversation" and would play a role, as would be expected for a trade association, in establishing a consensus. "My hope is that we'll land on an approach that can be embraced by the majority within the sector."

Further underlining the diverging views on colour coding, Nestle's global breakfast cereal joint venture with General Mills, Cereal Partners Worldwide, remains outside the coalition. When the UK traffic lights scheme was introduced four years ago, Nestle signed up but Cereal Partners Worldwide did not.

Bart Vandewaetere, head of relations with European institutions at Nestle, says any harmonised scheme would only apply to the company's wholly-owned operations at the outset.

"The scheme is just a proposal. The outcome needs to be agreed in consultation with the task force," Vandewaetere says. "As soon as we have the recommendation and we believe this is a workable and credible solution with enough stakeholder support, then Nestle will implement this. And then we will present this solution to our joint ventures and beyond to all industry associations as well. But we will start with what is closest to us, and of course we will talk with CPW and other joint ventures and try to convince them that this is the way forward." 

Vandewaetere declined to say whether General Mills had been invited to join the partnership from the outset. When contacted by just-food, General Mills said it had nothing to add to Nestle's summary of Cereal Partners Worldwide 's position.

With regard to the differing views on colour coding held across the food sector, Vandewaetere believes there will be "constructive discussions" on the issue and expects support for the use of colours will build over time.

The incorporation of colour-coding by the six will be broadly welcomed by public health advocates. While expressing some scepticism about the overall efficacy of nutritional labelling in altering consumer behaviour, Jack Winkler, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University, welcomes the initiative. "Consumers deserve better information about their food and drink. This is giving it to them. The format may not be perfect, but it is putting comprehensible and useable information on the front of packs."

Portions

Where public health experts are likely to withhold praise is with regard to the proposed rating of products on the basis of nutrient levels "per portion". Campaigners have already expressed concern that doing so may allow companies to give a green or amber label to products that should be classified as less healthy.

Prof. Winkler says in principle he has "nothing against" using a per portion rating but "as a supplement" to labelling per 100g or 100ml. "Standard weight and volume labelling is not without its problems, but it at least allows consumers to compare different products," he says. "There is no EU-wide system for determining serving sizes. The consequence of this is that different companies in different countries will define the serving sizes for the same product differently. The result is only going to be consumer confusion, within and between countries."

However, Mike Gibney, Professor of Food and Health at University College Dublin, suggests a "robust portion-based system" better reflects the actual consumption of the product and will therefore be a more effective way of helping consumers achieve a more balanced diet than nutritional information per 100g.

Prof. Gibney, who sits on the Nestle Nutrition Council and has recently begun working on a project looking at breakfast cereal consumption which is partly funded by Cereal Partners Worldwide, was quoted as an external stakeholder in the initial press release put out by the six companies, endorsing a per portion approach.

It is his work on comparing typical portion size across Europe that is of particular relevance. Citing a recent study he co-authored, looking across seven EU countries, Prof. Gibney suggests portion size varies far less across different countries than has been previously believed, which would increase the viability of a harmonised, per portion system across Europe. Speaking to just-food, Prof. Gibney dismisses the assertion a per portion system could be misused by industry as "nonsense".

Tramontin says there is "no intention to paint chocolate 'green'" but a per portion rating would allow the system to "reflect better the reality of consumption". Mondelez's consumer research had indicated support for the use of colours and Tramontin says "consistent consumer feedback" across different markets had also revealed consumers are looking for an indication of nutritional value related directly to the portion being consumed. And, Tramontin adds, "portion control is a positive driver of mindful consumption".

While consumer organisations and public health advocates are likely to remain sceptical about the per portion approach, this is likely to be supported by many food companies. Indeed, the six partners may find far greater scope for consensus-building with peers on the portion question than for the use of colours. FoodDrinkEurope's statement bears this out. "We acknowledge that the initiative builds on the fact-based Reference Intakes scheme, which FoodDrinkEurope developed to help consumers make informed choices, and takes into account portions, as most foods are not consumed on a per 100g/ml basis."

Eyeing future regulation

Where the six partners and FoodDrinkEurope also have common ground is in the need for harmonisation. France recently became the latest country to unveil a government-backed, voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labelling system, dubbed Nutri-Score.

The coalition's contention that the "proliferation of national schemes would hamper consumer understanding and would be a barrier to the single market," is echoed in FoodDrinkEurope's response. The organisation says it has "always argued strongly against the proliferation of national schemes across Europe". Not least because of the impediment national front-of-pack schemes could represent to the EU's internal market, national governments are not permitted to mandate front-of-pack nutrition labelling schemes. The dispute with Italy resulting from the UK's voluntary scheme only serves to highlight the issue, and shows even soft regulation can be seen as a discriminatory barrier to trade.

For this reason, there are moves within the EU to bring about a harmonised approach to front-of-pack labelling under EU food labelling regulations. In a speech to the Safe Food Advocacy Europe conference last month, EU Commissioner for Health & Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis confirmed he would be presenting a report by the end of this year looking at the different voluntary front-of-pack schemes across the EU.

The launch of the food companies' initiative underlines the need to build a consensus. Equally, it shows establishing a unified view even among these six firms has only just become possible and reaching a common view across the EU food sector will be a considerable challenge.

The European Commission's task of building a broader consensus among member state governments and the various stakeholder groups seems an even more daunting proposition, and suggests EU-wide regulation on front-of-pack labelling is a distant prospect. Nevertheless, establishing a common approach among food companies can only help foster harmonisation of voluntary schemes and allow industry to enter cross-stakeholder discussions about the future shape of any EU regulation with a more coherent and unified vision.