Opinion piece – “EU Nutrition and Health Policy: Who is in the driving seat?”

By Olivier Devaux, Senior Public Affairs and Communications Manager at the European Snacks Association. 

This piece reflects the views of the European Snacks Association and not necessarily those of VoteWatch Europe


Observers will all agree with the fact that the European Union (EU) is at a turning point. Brexit heralded an era of uncertainties and the unity of the Union is being undermined by the desire of some other Member States to reclaim their national sovereignty. On the other hand, many would agree that in an increasingly divided world, a united Europe is needed.

At this time of doubts, the European Commission has published a White paper on the future of Europe and ways forward (March 2017) that maps out the challenges and opportunities ahead while proposing several scenarios. It will be ultimately up to EU citizens, through a range of different fora and representative bodies, to decide whether they want more Europe or less Europe.

Far from being academic, this question relates to major elements of public policy that have an impact on our daily lives. And that includes those connected to nutrition and health, which are of utmost importance for the wellbeing of citizens in the context of rising obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).


Nutrition and health, the poor relative of EU policies?

Obesity is a growing health and financial challenge for the EU. The European Commission responded to it by adopting its Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related Health issues in 2007. The strategy encourages action-oriented partnerships across the EU involving key stakeholders such as the Member States, civil society and private organisations such as food and drink manufacturers[1].

However, it seems that, after 10 years, all the stakeholders are somewhat disappointed by how the EU is addressing the challenge. Some believe that the European Commission should do more, while others think that it already interferes too much. Some believe that it is up to Member States to tackle such challenges, whereas others believe only an integrated approach across the EU would be efficient.

So is there a mismatch between expectations and the EU’s capacity to meet them?

Striking the right note is a difficult balancing act, especially in a policy area that remains largely within the hands of the Member States. When it comes to nutrition and health, issues of leadership become central and illustrate, as in many other “non-community areas” the difficulty of taking the actions necessary to benefit to all European citizens.

The situation is exacerbated by how little influence the European Parliament (EP) has on this issue, in spite of the great interest shown by its members – as reflected by the number of written questions to the European Commission or the numerous motions for resolutions.

Yet there are many sensitive issues that would benefit from being treated with a pan-European approach. For instance, a proliferation of front-of-pack labelling schemes on food products across Member States would certainly add to the confusion of consumers and impose a huge burden on manufacturers. There is also the risk of discriminatory taxation being imposed on food, drink and certain nutrients. This kind of blunt instrument would unfairly penalise certain types of product, as well as the consumers at the end of the chain.


When the eagerness of Member States endangers the Single Market

The challenge becomes even clearer in light of the risks that unilateral actions by Member States pose to the Single Market, whose development and integrity is one of the cornerstones of the European Union.

The European Commission generally seeks to support Member States and coordinate any actions, but what we have witnessed recently is that, taking advantage of the relative vacuum at EU level, Member States are increasingly coming up with initiatives that are not necessarily beneficial to consumers or for the European food and drink industry, which is the largest manufacturing sector in the EU and comprises 99% Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).[2]

In fact, in recent years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been actively lobbying Member States and promoting its so-called “best-buys approaches” to tackle obesity and NCDs. These consist mainly of restrictive measures inspired by action taken previously against the tobacco industry, such as fiscal policies, marketing bans, availability restrictions, colour-coded on-pack warnings and so on. As a result, and as briefly described above, some Member States have begun taking steps in that direction to the detriment of European cohesion.

The reality is that the WHO is now more prominent in the policymaking process and the voice of the European Union “middle layer” is increasingly muted as it confronts its own limitations and the readiness of adventurous Member States to override the basic rules of the Single market.

At an event organised by the European Snacks Association (ESA) in the European Parliament in November 2017, Mr Arunas Vinciunas, Head of Cabinet to the Health and Food Safety Commissioner, said that the protection of public health does not necessarily clash with the need to preserve the Single Market. Indeed it doesn’t, but it requires the European Commission to stand up, set limits and, if need be, to take a lead in certain sensitive topics in order to find a European answer.


We should all take responsibility

Coming back to the question of who should do what on obesity and public health, there seem to be two camps forming. On one side there are the hardliners. In the wake of the WHO’s initiatives, they believe that multi-stakeholder approaches are inefficient and that the food and drink industry should be excluded from any policy discussions. On the other side there are those who believe that expertise, knowledge and goodwill from all the possible stakeholders will be needed to address such complex issues.

This inclusive approach was pretty much the position of the European Commission before certain Member States decided to go ahead with their own policies. Let’s hope that in the future the European Commission will be able to first regain and then expand its role to ensure more cohesion – i.e. more Europe – when addressing the challenge of obesity and NCDs.

This also implies the need for informed awareness among most Member States and probably a stronger European Parliament. A prominent member of the EP’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), Renate Sommer (EPP/DE) suggested at the ESA event in November that the Parliament (as a proxy for European citizens) could be represented in the European Commission’s Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

That would be a good start. We all have an important role to play in steering future policy.


About the European Snacks Association


The European Snacks Association (ESA) is Europe’s only trade organisation dedicated to advancing the savoury snacks industry on behalf of member snack manufacturers and suppliers, as well as national trade organisations.

Founded in 1961, our members are involved in the manufacture of potato crisps, corn chips /tortillas, pellet snacks, baked snacks, crackers, pretzels, savoury biscuits, popcorn, pork rinds, meat snacks, fruit snacks, peanuts, other snack nuts and various other savoury snacks in this category.

As a responsible sector, ESA is committed to further reduce the burden of obesity and non-communicable disease and holds three core commitments with the EU Platform to: improve our products’ nutritional composition; help consumers to make informed choices and manage a balanced diet, advertise responsibly (http://www.eu-pledge.eu/). For more details please see our infographic:  http://www.esasnacks.eu/ESA_PillarsInfographics_2017-01.pdf

ESA has a broad international membership of manufacturers and companies supplying equipment, ingredients, and services to the industry. ESA’s membership groups some 200 companies of all sizes in 40 countries, and ESA members represent ca. 80% of the entire European snacks market.

[1] Two instruments were created and are coordinated by the European Commission: The High-Level Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity, representing Member States experts, and the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, open to all other stakeholders as long as they submit concrete commitments pursuing the objectives of the Platform

[2] With more than 285 000 companies across the EU in 2017!