by Dr. Giorgos Konstantopoulos

president of the Greek Exporters Association (SEVE) 

SEVE, the Greek Exporters’ Association, expressed its opposition to the new system of frontal nutritional labelling of Nutri-score for food products promoted at EU level.

The Nutri-score nutritional labelling system is part of a proposal regarding the revision of EU rules on the information provided to consumers, which is part of EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. This policy aims to provide better labelling information in order to help consumers make healthier and more sustainable food choices and tackle food waste.

SEVE stresses the importance of exports of the agrifood sector, which holds a share of 22.2% of Greek exports. Food exports have increased by 50% over the last decade, while in 2020, in a particularly difficult period for the global economy and international trade, they increased by 11.3% compared to 2019 and exceeded €6.8 billion, contributing by 4.2% to GDP. However, the benefits that the Greek economy and society reap from the development of the food and beverage sector cannot be captured just in figures. It is of great importance to mention that food and drink products are products that are predominantly produced in Greece, are characterized by high nutritional value and quality, and contribute greatly in boosting employment and regional development.

The food produced in Greece and exported abroad –especially by smaller companies– is often produced naturally and traditionally, as opposed to the highly processed products produced by large industries that form the basis of the food sector in the Central and Northern European countries that promote the Nutri-score system. Therefore, there will be severe repercussions on the sector from a potential adoption of a new Nutri-score-type front labelling on food products.

Example of a Nutri-score label

The algorithm

The algorithm developed in this system for the evaluation of food is too simplistic as it only takes into account some of the characteristics, such as calories, fat content, saturated fat content, salt and sugar content, without assessing the overall nutritional profile of the food. Thus, no account is taken of the content of beneficial ingredients such as vitamins, trace elements, antioxidants, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and a variety of other bioactive ingredients.

However, this seemingly simple and easy-to-understand labelling system undervalues products of high nutritional value such as olive oil, table olives, feta, honey, pickles and canned fish, which account for 30% of food exports, as well as many other Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) products.

At the same time, nutritional information is based on 100g or 100 mL and not on the serving portion, creating even more confusion for consumers. It should therefore be highlighted that an ingredient cannot be included in the same assessment framework with ready-to-eat food.

Example of a Nutri-score label

 Healthy food not promoted

The application of such a system contradicts the findings of many scientific studies that overemphasize the nutritional value of products such as olive oil and table olives, as well as health claims and dietary recommendations. A large number of fish products carry legal nutrition claims under European Regulation 1924/2006 concerning Omega-3 fatty acids and health claims under Regulation 423/2012. The consumption of olive oil, which is an excellent source of polyphenols and unsaturated fatty acids, is also linked to health claims, while the National Dietary Guidelines recommends the daily consumption of two portions of dairy products. Ultimately, let us not undermine the use of salt in many foods as a natural preservative, which also helps reducing the use of synthetic additives. Despite the fact that excessive use of salt has been linked to certain diseases, its addition to many traditional fermented products such as pickles, many dairy products such as feta cheese, and table olives, is necessary for the proper development of the production process. Salinity contributes to the prevalence of the desired oxygenate flora and the inhibition of pathogen growth. The presence of beneficial bacteria contributes positively to the organoleptic characteristics of the products, many of which have a probiotic effect.

Given the above, SEVE’s request is to prevent the adoption of this labelling at the EU level, at least under the current terms, conditions, and selective assessment criteria.

It is noted that Greece belongs to the group of European countries that oppose to this particular rating system, which has a high risk of distorting the actual nutritional value of food and misleading consumers.

Plus, it is really important for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to intensify its efforts in all directions, both bilaterally and at the EU level, making use of the scientific results of the advisory group that, according to a relevant announcement, has been set up in order to provide technical and scientific support on the strategy of the food sector, in the framework of the “Greek Nutrition” program, with the initial objective of monitoring and giving its opinion on the ongoing legislative initiative of the European Commission on the front nutrition labelling of food.

Food Minister of Germany Julia Klöckner presenting the Nutri-score system

The Nutri-Score system

EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy aims to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly. Among the initiatives discussed is the introduction of a mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labeling (FOPNL) system for food products by 2022. The FOPNL system will help consumers make healthier choices and will “subsidize” eco- friendly producing methods.

The front-of-pack nutrition labeling (FOPNL) system gaining ground is the Nutri-Score.

Born in France, by the French public health agency, it is already used in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Spain.

The Nutri-Score rates products according to a score calculated by an algorithm. The calculation involves seven different parameters of nutrient information per 100g.

High content of fibers, proteins, fruits, vegetables, pulse, nuts, and rapeseed, walnut and olive oils (rule added in 2019) promotes a preferable score. High content of energy, saturated fatty acid, sugars and salt leads to a low score.

The Nutri-Score range from ‘A’ being the best score to ‘E’ (the lowest rank).

As professor Serge Hercberg, one of the inventors of the Nutri-Score, said in a Euronews interview, “the Nutri-Score takes into consideration favorable and unfavorable elements, making a nutritional balance. It is from this final result of all these positive and negative elements that we have an overall score that informs the consumer, very simply, about the nutritional quality of the food”.

Strong opposition

Nutri-Score has been met with fierce opposition from seven EU Member States.

Italy, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, and Romania argue that Nutri-score does not take into account the specificities of each Member State’s food culture, typical diet and national nutritional guidelines. They question the efficacy of the system noting that many Mediterranean products receive the same score as products like Coke Zero, for example. They have requested that the new FOPNL system exempts products with protected origin labels and single-ingredient products, such as olive oil.

The article is published in the July/ August 2021 issue of Greek Business File available here.