Effective front-of-pack nutritional labelling must be mandatory, harmonised and consumer-friendly

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling, which makes it easier for consumers to select healthy options, can go a long way to help the EU fight obesity
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By Biljana Borzan

Biljana Borzan (S&D, HR) is Vice-President of the S&D Group and was shadow rapporteur for Parliament's report on the Farm to Fork Strategy

14 Dec 2022

From my perspective as a medical doctor and a politician, the case for mandatory and harmonised front-of-pack nutritional labelling in the European Union is clear. According to Eurostat, one in two European adults is overweight or obese. Figures are particularly alarming for children, with the United Nations reporting that one in three is overweight or obese. The obesity epidemic continues to spread, and no country has seen a significant reversal of the trend. 

Obesity and its health effects have severe consequences, not only at the personal level but also in terms of public health due to the additional burden of health care costs on government budgets. 

It has been estimated to cost the European Union more than €60bn annually through healthcare costs and lost productivity. On a more personal level, obesity also plays a central role in an individual’s development of a number of risk factors and chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.

Modern consumers make their food purchase decisions very quickly. Taking the time to read detailed nutritional information from the back of the pack when you are in a hurry is a luxury for most people. Understanding the numbers is a further complication.

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling is a tried and tested tool to make the healthy option the easy option for the consumer. For example, it can help a consumer pick out the healthiest cereal from a shelf containing many brands and products in a matter of seconds.

But there are conditions that need to be met in order for the system to make a significant impact. We need a mandatory and harmonised label for the sake of public health, but also to prevent the fragmentation of the single market. This was one of my priorities as the S&D shadow rapporteur on the Farm to Fork report, and we managed to find strong support among MEPs. 

Also, the system has to be very simple and consumer-friendly. If the consumer has to, for example, take time and make an effort to calculate daily intakes, the labels will not be very useful. 

If the consumer has to, for example, take time and make an effort to calculate daily intakes, the labels will not be very useful

Furthermore, Regulation No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers introduced an important obligation on food producers to include nutritional information per 100g/ml for key nutrients, and the reference amounts should be the same for any front-of-pack nutritional labelling system, as the portion-based reference could be used to mislead consumers. 

When discussing the various labelling systems that are in the running to become the official one, the EU should not overlook the “Healthy Living” label used in Croatia since 2016. It was developed by the Croatian Institute of Public Health using European Social Fund support. 

The label ticks all boxes when it comes to simplicity and consumer understanding. In addition, it is tried and tested and avoids many of the controversies that permeate this discussion on the EU level.

Nevertheless, whichever system gets the nod from the co-legislators, as long as it is mandatory and harmonised, it will play an important part in the fight against obesity and its social, economic and public health consequences.