EU Code of Conduct offers the chance to showcase how public-private partnerships can deliver a healthier and more sustainable society

EU Code of Conduct offers the chance to showcase how public-private partnerships can deliver a healthier and more sustainable society

By Nicholas Hodac, director general, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe

The Farm to Fork’s proposal for an EU Code of Conduct for responsible business and marketing practices presents a golden opportunity for Europe to take a global lead in demonstrating the power of collective and collaborative public-private partnerships (PPP).  With a well-designed Code and Monitoring Framework the EU can show the world how PPP can foster more responsible business practices to deliver a healthier, more sustainable society.

This is exciting stuff. The EU has been pushing for joint action across the food system to encourage healthier diets for more than 15 years, since the establishment of its EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. The Code of Conduct provides the chance to take an important step forward and drive critical mass in realising healthier, more sustainable food environments for all Europe’s citizens.

Mobilising the whole food and drink sector to deliver critical mass

An EU Code of Conduct must prioritise the key objectives of the Farm to Fork strategy and Circular Economy Action plan: making the healthier choice the easy choice and accelerating the transition towards a circular economy. It goes without saying that, to realise its objective, all sectors will need to contribute in offering citizens healthier options – and this requirement must be built into the terms of the Code.

UNESDA was the first, and to date only, sector to respond to the EU’s 2015 call for a 10% reduction in added sugars by 2020. Clearly, given the varied nature of diets and lifestyles, action from just one sector cannot be expected to deliver specific impacts among the population. 

Reinforcing the role of voluntary measures and acknowledging reductions already made

The Code must acknowledge that a multi-faceted approach to promoting balanced food and drink choices and optimal nutrient and calorie intake is the only way to improve diets. It must also factor-in nutrient reductions already achieved by certain food sectors, such as the soft drinks industry, who have been reformulation pioneers. Recognition of different starting points when setting ambitions, objectives and benchmarks will be crucial in driving meaningful, sustainable change. And, of course, it must be anchored in a sound evidence-base and acknowledge those actions proven to deliver results – including reformulating to reduce calories; innovating to offer products with lower calorie profiles and offering smaller pack sizes to support portion control. The McKinsey report, Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis, confirms these as by far the most successful ways of reducing calories in diets.

As a founding member of the EU Platform, in 2006 UNESDA made wide-ranging commitments to behave responsibly – including no sales of ANY soft drinks in EU primary schools and no advertising to children under 12. Over the years our commitments have been strengthened to include pledges such as full “guideline daily amount” labelling front-of-pack, only no- and low-calorie drinks offered for sale in EU secondary schools and ongoing sugar and calorie reduction. The most recent commitment — to reduce added sugars 10% by 2020 – was achieved ahead of time, with an average calorie reduction of 14.6% between 2015-2019. Research, by independent auditors GlobalData, reveals that the sector reduced average calories by a total of 26% since 2000.

Clarity in design with measurable objectives and monitoring protocols

Monitoring compliance annually is a requirement of EU Platform membership. The whole process of making commitments, auditing them using independent third parties such as PwC, and ensuring that they are being upheld by our members across the EU has given us sound experience on how best to design and implement a Code of Conduct and Monitoring Framework. 

It’s a no-brainer that transparency is the key starting point. All actors need clarity on the role and value that voluntary industry commitments will have within the Commission’s future work programme. This includes certainty around packaging investments and increasing the use of recycled content. Important too is ensuring alignment at EU and national level.  Member states are already developing their own approaches so there needs to be coordination and harmonisation to ensure efficiency and avoid confusion or conflict. 

A Code that is well designed at the outset is easy to monitor. SMART objectives – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based – ensure mutual understanding by all parties. It requires clear objectives and parameters detailing precise inputs and expected outputs – and clarifying what is not within the scope of the commitment. This, together with clear timelines, reporting processes and dispute resolution mechanisms will ensure that the Code and Monitoring Framework can deliver real value.

Working in a spirit of co-creation to realise a healthier, more sustainable society

Today we stand at a crossroads. Ahead is the unique opportunity to seize the moment and work together in building a more sustainable food environment. To be successful, we need all sectors to respond to this call to action and join the Code. I hope that some of the commitments made by the soft drinks industry can serve as inspiration in convincing all food and drink producers to work hand-in-hand with public authorities in taking concrete steps towards making the healthier diet the easy choice.

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