The Whitehouse Consultancy

By Kasia Wilk, Associate Director, EU Affairs

Shortly before the December holiday break a much-anticipated consultation on nutrient profiles was communicated to key stakeholders. It formed part of a larger study on the need, if any, for the European Commission to proceed with setting nutrient profiles. Those involved in food policy long enough will no doubt remember that nutrient profiles were foreseen in the 2006 Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims, but little to no progress has been made in setting them since.

This consultation is a fairly unique specimen in that it has to deal in counter-factuals: what would have happened, had nutrient profiles been set. Obviously this does leave substantial room for “creativity”. The key purpose of this study is, however, as important as ever: are nutrient profiles really needed?

The answer, as in most policy questions, depends on who you ask. Consumer organisations, well known for a propensity towards increasing regulation, will suggest nutrient profiles are absolutely necessary to combat the obesity epidemic that is increasingly becoming “public health enemy number one”.

But on the other hand, one can reasonably wonder, how many people would actually buy a big block of cheese and proceed to consume it in one sitting because it might contain, say, calcium? And while being unaware that cheese is generally high in fat and fatty foods should be consumed in moderation?

Can we actually credibly state that European consumers are so unaware of the health risks of sugar, fat and salt, that allowing, for example, a jar of chocolate spread to carry a health claim, will result in large increases in consumption of chocolate spread?

But even if we assume that, at the end of the day, consumers are unsure about the fat content of cheese and the sugar content of chocolate spread, there is already mandatory labelling information and reference intakes to guide those wishing to eat more healthily.

It is undoubtedly the duty of a state to promote the good health of its population. But there needs to be a line demarcating where personal responsibility begins. This question has occupied scholars and politicos for centuries and will likely continue to do so.

There is no clear cut answer. But perhaps there is one in the case of nutrient profiles, which are an unnecessarily complex affair. We have lived for years without them without compromising consumer safety. We can surely continue to do so.

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