On July 3, 2015, the European Commission (EC), being consistent with the EXPO theme, “Feeding the Planet, energy for Life”, held the conference "Nutrition, Health and Food Information – Know what you eat" at the EXPO 2015 site in Milan, Italy.
The conference was organized by DG SANTE, the EC Directorate General for Health and Food Safety and intended to open an international dialogue on the strategies on promoting better nutrition through food information.
This event brought together key international actors on nutrition strategies with representatives from EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), WHO (World Health Organization), US FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), Governments and, of course, the EC that described their experiences, identified “hot” issues and current challenges and exchanged views on what we should look out for the future.
Here is a first-hand insight into what was debated at this high profile event.
Worldwide Better Nutrition Policies
There is a “tsunami of (food) information” out there that consumers need to deal with. The EU labeling Regulation 1169/2011 has been in force since December 2014, requiring better legibility (how easily a consumer can read the text on the label) and more mandatory particulars (for example, nutrition labeling of foods bearing claims is now mandatory).
In the view of this food “infobesity”, Dr Tonio Borg, the Former European Commissioner for Health, proposes that genuine and relevant information should take precedence over labeling for health reasons. He highlighted the fact that we need to continue scientifically scrutinising the health claims and that nutrition labeling for alcohol is “a pleasure yet to come”. We will let you know when it does!
Target the Right Consumer
Dr Francesco Branca, from the Nutrition Department of WHO, thinks that front-of-package labeling should take into account the audience who will benefit from it. The aim is to convey the message in a way that people are able to understand. It was suggested that more legislation is needed for marketing food to children.
Long Term Effects
The former Head of Nutrition Unit in DG SANTE, Mr Basil Mathioudakis, says that Public Health policies are not top priority for politicians because they do not have immediate results and that more research is needed in order to demonstrate the effect that better health and nutrition would have on productivity and economy. He highlighted the role of education in training consumers and suggests that all players (i.e. retails-consumers-manufacturers-governments-scientists) should be brought around the table, urging authorities not to give in to the political pressures.
US: look out for legislation updates
Dr Paula Trumbo, Nutrition Programme officer at the FDA, announced that at the end of 2015, the US will publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) based on dietary patterns. The FDA is currently evaluating previous changes of the US labeling rules in order to highlight the positive and negative nutrients to the consumer.
These changes shall include: increase prominence of kcal (per serving or per package/container), dual colour labeling and adding vitamin D and calcium as mandatory particulars in the US nutrition template.
We will keep you posted about these regulatory changes as they come.
Tricky Part: Getting It Right in Practice
Calorie Counts: Voluntary vs. Mandatory Approach
Sandra Barnes, from the Irish Department of Health, said that the Irish Government is conducting impact assessment and drafting a regulation for Mandatory Calorie Posting on menus. This initiative is a follow – up to the current voluntary approach for calorie content display, which only 8% of restaurants, take-aways and food service outlets are actually implementing right now.
How Do Consumers Behave?
Prof. Monique Raats, from University of Surrey, and Dr Sophie Hieke, from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), discussed the developments on consumer behaviour studies and the role of health-related claims and health-related symbols in consumer behaviour.
They pointed out the high discrepancies observed between countries regarding the degree of trust towards the food label by giving the example of France and Poland where consumers respond that they do trust food labels, whereas consumers in the UK say they do not trust labeling at all.
Trust and acceptance of food labels can differ depending on food type (e.g. fruit products for which it is more or less evident what is inside them, but more info is needed for convenient products), stage of life of the consumer (e.g. pregnancy, childhood), state of health (illness, weight problems) but also on socio economic factors. Prof. Raats and Dr Hieke also highlighted the importance of how the message is conveyed saying that negative nutrient marking (e.g. with red colours) was found to be 3 times stronger and more effective than positive marking. On the other hand, positive incentives, such as the positive prospect of a healthy life, can act as a motivating factor for changing peoples’ behaviours.
The two researchers are involved in the EU funded CLYMBOL project that aims to understand better the effects of health claims and symbols on food labels, and how this affects purchase and consumption behaviour.
Allergens: is the List Long Enough?
Dr Claire Mills, professor of Allergology at University of Manchester, reminded that the prevalence of food allergies in the EU is about 6-7% for infants and kids and about 2% for adults. New EU rules provide protection also to those dining outside home, which accounts for majority of the allergic reactions.
However, Dr Mills and Mr Steven Pugh, from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) argue that since the 14 Codex allergens were first established (on which the EU legislation is based), we have more data on prevalence and the structure of the allergens and suggested that both the EU and the Codex lists might need to be revised. They gave the example of soy which, although not being a prevalent allergen, is listed in the allergens list, whereas kiwi, which provokes a significant number of allergic reactions, is currently not present in either of the two lists.
The panel suggested that at least 4-5 years of research are needed to enable EFSA to revise the opinion on allergens but also to develop better detecting methods. The panel urged for further funding, but also for training of both enforcement services and consumers.
We will keep you informed of any changes that may occur in relevant allergens lists.
Hi-Tech Food Information
Information Communication Technologies are already serving consumers. By using smartphone apps consumers get nutritional information, can track their energy intake or even translate nutrition information into a traffic light scheme. What about future developments and how consumers will react to those?
Ms Anne Katrin Bock, Policy Analyst at the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the EC’s in-house science service, expects a future supermarket where people can see all relevant information on screens in order to facilitate conscious buying decisions, smart fridges (i.e. eliminating food odours) and smart packaging (i.e. increasing product shelf-life) that also contribute in reducing food waste. Ms Bock recommends that the EC needs to set R&D priorities to maximise the benefit of new technologies.
And the Industry?
Mr. Keith Sprinks, from the European Travel Retail Confederation, raised the problem that “international buyers” face at the airports. He invited the attendees to consider a confectionary product (that have the biggest share in the airport retail market) that might be produced in Country A, sold in an airport in Country B, bought by a consumer from Country C and offered as a gift to Country D. He suggests that maybe in-store scanners for bar codes or QR codes might be a solution for the consumer to see not only price but also nutrition information in the selected language.
Mr Massimiliano Minisci, Director of EU Public Policy at GS1, global experts on barcoding and traceability methods, proposes that food information regulations should not go into too many technical details as this will increase the burden on the food manufacturer. He believes it is imperative that regulators balance the need vs the amount of information given. Simply put, they need to identify what consumers need to know for better decision making and provide only the relevant information.
Legislation on information we provide to the consumer is a moving target. Both in content and in the way it is being presented. Global focus is shifting towards detailed information that can help the consumer make an informed and a healthy choice.
While the scientists are doing research and assessing impact, regulators are drafting new rules. Meanwhile, the industry needs to remain active in keeping track of it all and adapting timely to future trends and legislation updates.