The contentious issue of front-of-pack nutritional labelling will not be resolved by self-regulation, says Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC). As he prepares to relinquish his post after 17 years, Murray told David Haworth why.

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling not only should, but will become mandatory and standardised throughout the European Union (EU) in due time, according to Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC).

With concern mounting over the fat, sugar and salt levels in food, Murray doubts that the industry can come up with a voluntary code that meets the public’s growing need for nutritional information. “I can’t believe the industry can produce a voluntary code which will allow consumers to see at a glance the most relevant nutritional characteristics of particular foods,” Murray says, adding that this is in line with the BEUC’s objective to “make the healthier choice the easier choice”.

Simplified labelling must not only give information but must also contain an interpretative element which would, for example, indicate the presence of relatively low, medium or high levels of particular ingredients, he stresses.

Murray is sceptical about the international food industry’s capacity to develop simplified nutritional labelling schemes on a voluntary basis. Although he acknowledges that some of the industry’s leading companies, such as Unilever, are taking steps to curb trans-fats, and declaring their good intentions on labelling, in the EU there remain many different definitions of trans-fats, making it harder for consumers to compare like products.

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Furthermore, Murray claims there is reluctance on the part of some manufacturers to embrace schemes which might actually work by persuading consumers not to eat certain foods so often or eat less of them. And even with good intentions, this involves changing taste over the long term which is not easy to achieve.

Culture and habits play a considerable part in consumer choices, one reason why the BEUC does not believe content percentages on packaging can discourage shoppers from sometimes making poor or ignorant choices. “This is not a persuasive way of doing it,” Murray says.

The way forward, he suggests, is through the reformulation of some food products but he admits this is more easily said than done, not least because it can have drastic implications all the way down the supply chain. Overnight changes are impossible.

Heart disease accounts for an annual 1.9m deaths in the EU. Murray notes that trans-fatty acids are proven to increase LDL cholesterol, while decreasing HDL cholesterol, and thus contribute significantly to heart and circulatory disease.

Consumer champion pours cold water on self-regulation

There is currently a petition before the European Parliament which has garnered some 150 parliamentarians’ signatures calling for a mandatory EU labelling scheme on trans-fats and to launch public awareness campaigns about the dangers of trans-fatty acids. But the motion needs at least 300 signatures before it can be formally tabled as legislation, and even then it will need the European Commission’s support to proceed. But Murray is optimistic that this will be achieved – just as he remains certain that self-regulation in this area will not be sufficient.

However, does this ebullient Irishman, who will retire this summer after 17 years of consumer advocacy in Brussels, blame the industry for the dangers he describes so vividly? No, he does not.

Ultimately it comes down to questions of choice. “We all need to move more – and eat less,” he insists.

Nevertheless, while he clearly stresses personal responsibility in the area of diet and health, Murray demurs from the industry’s mantra of “there is no such thing as bad foods, only bad diets”. He says such thinking only serves to confuse. In this context he says it is equally valid to say “there are no such things as good foods”.

The need to change diets, and not just focus on more physical activity, is especially acute in the case of children, says Murray. According to a Eurobarometer poll last November, some 96% of respondents considered food advertising and promotion influences children’s eating habits; 28% consider this influence is preponderant, while 53% believe it plays an important role.

The foods that are most advertised on television are the sugary and fatty ones, precisely the products that should be consumed less. In other words, unhealthier foods are at the commercial apex of consumption while the healthy basics, such as bread, cereals, fruit and vegetables, are the least trumpeted.

The BEUC has called for an EU-wide ban on TV advertising which promotes food products that appeal to children. Murray refers to a European Parliament resolution which had its first reading ten weeks ago which states “…there is clear evidence that TV advertising influences short-term consumption patterns of children between 2 and 11 years…”

He adds: “I’m not saying simplistically that ‘advertising makes children fat’ but rather that advertising makes it harder to be good parents.” He feels the marketing is so intensive that only a total ban will be suitable.

The European Commission has not so far agreed to binding rules to ban such television commercials, preferring for the moment that such advertising should be controlled on a self-regulatory basis.

On these and other issues the BEUC works closely with the Italy-based European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) which is increasingly drawn into health issues. Murray thinks that after four years in operation EFSA has now settled down as an effective bureaucracy and, moreover, one on which the public increasingly relies.