EU Farm to Fork Strategy – making healthier diets the easy choice
by Helen Benson, Regulatory Affairs Director, UNESDA
The COVID-19 crisis has brought the essential nature of Europe’s food and drink industry into sharp focus. Despite the unprecedented challenges of lockdowns and restrictions on movement across the continent, the food and drink sector has managed to maintain supply and ensure that the EU’s 450 million citizens continue to be fed and refreshed.
The EU should be proud of the way in which the entire supply chain has pulled together – from farmers and producers through to manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The soft drinks sector is a local industry with local suppliers and plants and has worked with literally thousands of people to ensure that its products continue to reach the shelves. We have very much appreciated the clear guidance and support provided by the EU institutions in helping stakeholders navigate the crisis and its long-lasting effects on our economy and way of life.
Against this background, it is hardly a surprise to learn that the EU Farm to Fork strategy is delayed. However, regardless of the timing, what really matters is that when the Commission is ready to launch its strategy, that it comes forward with a document that provides European society and business with an EU-wide roadmap for delivering sustainable food production and consumption. Our industry would welcome an approach that is evidence-based, continues to place food safety centre stage, and also secures the competitiveness and dynamism of the sector. Upholding its capacity to innovate and offer consumer choice, while focussing on positive steps forward that will have the most impact in our “new normal”.
Towards healthier diets by nudging consumer behaviour
We applaud the roadmap’s goal of making healthier diets the easy choice and its acknowledgment that while there are no healthy or unhealthy foods, there are indeed healthy and unhealthy diets. Improving diets won’t be addressed effectively by setting maximum nutrient levels but rather by balancing food and drink choices to achieve an optimal intake of nutrients and calories. This depends on a complex range of factors such as physical activity levels, age, overall health, portion sizes and dietary preferences.
The good news is that the soft drinks sector has been offering products with absolutely no calories or sugar since the 1970s. These drinks support people in reducing their calorie intake and over the past 20 years UNESDA members have cut average calories in soft drinks by some 25%. Almost one quarter of all soft drinks sold in Europe today are no- and low-calorie, and in some markets it’s already at 40%. Our commitment to sugar reduction uses a combination of levers to nudge consumer choice and create healthier diets – reformulating existing products, innovating to develop new products with lower sugar profiles, placing promotion behind no- and low-calorie options and reducing pack sizes to help with portion control.
European action guided by reputable evidence and science
Reformulating to reduce or remove sugars is most successful when done gradually in order to gain the buy-in of consumers and allow for different tastes and preferences. Sugar reduction can only go so far. There are technical barriers to reformulation and product safety and integrity will always remain our number one priority.
We want to continue our sugar reduction journey and low-calorie sweeteners, which are evaluated as safe by the European Food Safety Authority and authorised by the European Commission, are a key tool in achieving this – not just in soft drinks but right across the food industry.
In order to go further, we need European and national authorities to drive consumer confidence in low-calorie sweeteners and reassure them of their safety and benefits. We also need to increase innovation potential by optimising the regulatory framework to facilitate gradual reformulation. This would generate critical mass in driving sugar/calorie reduction while also supporting the UN global health objective of encouraging product innovation and lower calorie options.
Let’s get clear on labelling
Labels can give people accurate, easily understandable information on the nutritional composition of the food and drink that they buy for themselves and their families. UNESDA members have displayed full, “Guideline Daily Amount” nutritional information front-of-pack for almost 15 years – well ahead of the requirements of EU legislation which made full, back-of-pack nutrition labelling mandatory.
The host of front-of-pack nutritional labelling schemes which have emerged across Europe in recent years have the potential to confuse consumers and create trade barriers and additional costs. They are a prime example of the consequences of a lack of EU-wide direction which fragments the single market and compromises EU competitiveness.
We need an EU-wide, harmonised, evidence-based front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme that meets the dietary needs of all EU citizens. As UNESDA, we could support the establishment of a voluntary system that is developed under an EU governance model and able to be scaled across the EU in line with existing legislation. To be successful, the scheme must be relevant, informative and meaningful – helping consumers to choose lower sugar/calorie options if they wish, while also incentivising producers to reformulate.
In short, regardless of when the European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy appears, what is more important than ever in the current context is that it places European consumers and businesses at its very heart – upholding the single market, streamlining costs and efficiencies to promote competitiveness, and driving effective, evidence-based action right across the EU food chain.