EU efforts to shield consumers from food fraud undercut by revived nutrition label

As the EU accelerates the erosion of its Green Deal in a desperate bid to appease its protesting farmers, one notable element of Brussels’s fading ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy has just bucked the trend. In late January, the European Parliament and member-states sealed an agreement –  dubbed the ‘breakfast directive’ – to bolster consumer information rules for food products including honey, jams and fruit juices while guiding healthier dietary choices.

Proposed by the European Commission last April, the directive aims to enhance transparency and tackle food fraud via country-of-origin labelling requirements for honey, one of the EU’s most adulterated foods, as well as new analytical tools to detect sugar-cut honey. What’s more, given the rising demand for reduced-sugar products, the deal offers new labelling categories, including for “only naturally occurring sugars,’ and increases the minimum fruit content for jams.

With the political agreement set for the final legislative green light in the coming weeks, Brussels’s decision-makers must avoid undermining this rare glimmer of hope in the agri-food policy arena with its recently-revived nutrition label proposal.

EU food fraud compromising consumer trust

The breakfast directive deal arrives nearly a year after the publication of the Commission-led “From the Hives” report, which found that nearly half of EU honey imports are likely fraudulent, notably adulterated with banned sugar syrups derived from rice, wheat and sugar beets. Given that the bloc depends on imports for roughly 40% of its consumption needs –  particularly from China and Turkey – this scale of fraud poses a significant transparency problem for consumers.

Indeed, honey’s high concentration of antioxidants, such as flavonoids and phenolic acids, has been associated with improved cardiovascular health, while its natural sugar has been recognised as a healthier alternative to refined sugar, which explains why the EU’s Honey Directive prohibits the artificial addition of cheap sugar syrups. What’s more, high volumes of these low-production cost, low-quality imports have put EU producers at a significant competitive disadvantage while defrauding consumers.

Beyond honey, fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and oils remain Europe’s most adulterated product groups, with Spain, Italy and the Netherlands most affected by food fraud according to EIT Food. Suspected cases of food fraud in the EU soared by 85% between 2016 and 2019, with this trend greatly accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As FoodDrinkEurope has highlighted, “not only does” this fraud “erode consumer trust” – a meagre 40% of surveyed Europeans have confidence in their food purchases’ authenticity –  but it damages “the entire supply chain,” depriving consumers of the food quality, safety and choice guaranteed by EU law.

Nutrition label threatening fragile progress

While Brussels’s new origin and sugar labelling proposals for breakfast foods, as well as its exploration of a traceability system, represent a strong start in the bloc’s wider battle against food fraud, the Belgian Council Presidency’s revival of the harmonised nutrition label threatens to sabotage this consumer transparency effort before liftoff.

Despite years of intense opposition from a coalition of member-states including Greece, Czechia, Hungary and Cyprus, Belgium seemingly seeks to capitalise on its six-month reign to impose the Nutri-Score system on a divided bloc. Indeed, although the label has been officially adopted in its native France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Nutri-Score has been banned by the national competition authorities of Italy and Romania for failing to provide with reliable nutritional information, thus undermining public health.

What’s more, Nutri-Score’s adoption in its supposed strongholds has generated significant controversy, with nutritionists in the Netherlands claiming that the system contradicts its national dietary guidelines and Swiss MPs mulling a legislative prohibition. Capturing the core of this opposition, leading French nutritionist Philippe Legrand has previously asserted that Nutri-Score’s “biased” A-to-E evaluation of food and beverage products “rests on an algorithm hidden to the consumer” – one whose foundations are “questionable and hotly-debated” due its outdated assessment of a narrow set of nutritional components.

Last year, a group of 75 expert nutritionists from the Medical University of Warsaw notably qualified Nutri-Score as “often misleading” for consumers, further concluding that the system overlooks minerals and vitamins vital to nutritional health and “does not support nutritional education” nor “the use of a balanced diet.” Furthermore, the much-touted algorithm update launched at the beginning of the year has failed to convince, with France’s ANSES recently finding that Nutri-Score 3.0 fairs poorly in guiding consumers towards certain key nutrients lacking in the population.

AI offering promising alternatives

With a supposedly-reinvented Nutri-Score still producing aberrations such as the downgrading of natural sugar-rich prunes below artificial sweetener-filled Diet Coke, the EU’s push for improved consumer nutritional information requires innovative alternatives. In this space, AI solutions are fueling an emerging revolution in personalised nutrition, helping consumers meet their specific dietary and health needs – a benefit that traditional nutrition labels cannot match.

Through highly-advanced algorithms, AI-based apps like Youniq process a range of personal medical information and scan products at grocery stores or at home, compiling all of this data to provide tailored meal suggestions and diet plans. Crucially, these types of AI tools avoid absolutist judgements on a given product’s “healthiness,” instead opting to guide consumers’ journey to achieving their individual goals, from controlling their diabetes to improving sleep.

What’s more, AI chatbots like ChatGPT now offer shoppers real-time analysis of food products. A recently-published study investigating the accuracy and reliability of ChatGPT-provided nutritional information concluded that its recommendations largely compared favourably to those of nutritionists and represent a promising tool for enhancing dietary knowledge within the general public. 

Nevertheless, while AI solutions have significant potential to democratise access to personalised dietary advice, ongoing issues in certain areas, such as estimating protein levels and ensuring data privacy, mean that their contribution to improving food transparency should be complemented by nutritionists’ advice and robust data protection regulations.

By supporting the responsible development of AI-driven personalized nutrition solutions while rolling out new anti-fraud labelling and traceability schemes, the EU could restore trust in the food system and help consumers make healthier dietary choices. The EU Parliament’s recently-struck ‘breakfast foods’ deal gives cause for hope, yet as they finalize this proposal, Brussels’s policymakers must avoid unforced errors in other files that have largely doomed the ‘Farm to Fork’ agenda.