All this week, Debating Europe will be publishing a themed series of posts looking at the issue of health and wellness in Europe. With healthcare budgets increasingly coming under pressure, it’s important to look at ways to maintain public health without breaking the bank. Our previous posts in this series looked at the problem of obesity in Europe, as well as asking how we could have a greater focus on prevention instead of crisis-management in healthcare. Today, we’ll be looking at EU regulation and nutrition.
In a debate we posted last year with the Danish Minister for the Environment, we had a comment sent in from Enrique, arguing that tougher regulation needed to be brought in to control food quality in Europe, particularly in terms of things like nutritional content:
We must [increase] the health level of people through better regulation of the agri-food sector to produce food that maintains long-term health, instead of food 80% depleted in vitamins.
We had similar comments in our recent post on obesity, with Stefana arguing that we must:
Regulate the food industry so that more natural ingredients are used and not chemicals.
Recently, we put these comments to Mella Frewen, the Director General of FoodDrink Europe, an association which represents (as the name suggests) the food and drink industry in Europe. How would she respond to Enrique’s comment?
First of all, I’d like to say I agree with Enrique that this has become a big problem: there are an increasing number of overweight and obese European citizens – and it’s not just in Europe, this is a global problem.
Certainly, I think the food industry has a role to play in tackling this issue and, in fact, is already particularly active on the self-regulation scene. We are one of the founding members of the EU platform for action on diet, physical activity and health. This was a platform set up by the Commission 6 or 7 years ago, which works towards reformulation, responsible advertising, better labeling, etc.
We’re looking at reducing salt, for example. However, we can’t do this overnight, because if you can imagine a mum serving the kids some breakfast cereals and suddenly the salt was all gone, the kids would probably say: “Mum, these taste funny! We don’t want to eat them.” So, it has to be done gradually.
Also, it’s something that has to be done together, because if we were to reduce all of the salt in one of our products, the consumer would simply take a similar product but with higher salt levels. That’s just to give the salt example, there are lots more examples of reformulation going on.
Also, we add nutrients, such as vitamins. Here, European legislation that works would be very useful, because we have some problems where, in some countries, you add vitamins and there’s a maximum level legislated in that country. However, that level could be different in other member-states, so that complicates things.
But this whole obesity problem is something that should be managed looking at different facets, because it cannot just be solved by putting different foods on the market. People also have to be encouraged through education to be more active… So, let’s increase those bicycle paths, get kids to do more activities at school, and, of course, through the products we as a food industry put on the market, let’s try to reformulate those. Let’s say trans-fats, we know trans-fats are not good, so we’re reformulating trans-fats. But it’s a multi-stakeholder approach, and that’s how we’re tackling the issue.
We also had a question sent in from Marcel, who was concerned that companies in Europe might be trying to save money by importing poor quality ingredients from outside of the EU:
The question is do I trust product safety standards, and the answer is I do not… The biggest problem is obviously greed. Companies looking to save [money] by importing food components from China or elsewhere…
We put this concern to Despina Spanou, Director for Consumer Policy at the European Commission, for her to respond:
I’m glad that Marcel has asked this question, because I believe that people in the EU don’t talk enough about what we are doing to ensure food safety. You see, it’s not only food produced in Europe that has to respect EU safety standards, but also food imported from outside Europe. In many ways, the EU is a global champion of these standards, and it even exports standards to other regions, from Africa to Canada. When we trade with third countries, we expect them to respect these rules.
For example, every slaughterhouse that wants to import meat into the EU must be inspected and validated before they can export to us. The standards must be equivalent to those of a slaughterhouse within the EU, and all food circulating within the EU market must be produced according to the same rules. In other words, there is no distinction when it comes to quality and safety between what is produced in the EU and imported from outside.
What do YOU think? Should EU rules on food nutrition be stricter, or should the emphasis be on giving the consumer as much information about the product as possible and letting them make an informed decision? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their response.