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A perfect storm: Nutri-Score, alcohol and health

A perfect storm is brewing in Europe. And one of the key factors is wine.

The situation has been developing for a long time. But the potentially explosive elements are growing in intensity and coming together as if by some invisible magnetic force.

In 2011, Regulation No. 1169 (which amended earlier regulations going back to 2006) was adopted in European Parliament calling for a system to provide food nutrition information to consumers.

Shortly thereafter, the French Ministry of Health instructed Santé Publique France, the national public health agency, to create a comprehensive nutrition labelling system. The task was entrusted to a team at INSERM (National Institute of Health and Medical Research) headed by Serge Hercberg, who is also a professor of nutrition at the Faculty of Medicine, Sorbonne University Paris Nord.

Nutri-Score, as the system is called, quantifies the potentially unhealthy factors of a given foodstuff (calories, saturated fatty acids, simple sugars, sodium) with the potentially healthy ones (protein, fiber, and fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive or nut oil), then compiles a score and assigns a category from A (healthiest) to E (least healthy) which is indicated on a multicolored label on the front of the package.

This system was implemented in France in 2017 — seven years after the Mediterranean Diet was recognised by UNESCO as a cultural heritage of humanity — and it has since been adopted by six other European countries: Germany, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

In 2021, INSERM released a report indicating that 41,000 French people died due to alcohol in 2015. High as this may seem, it is actually lower than the 49,000 deaths attributed to alcohol in a previous report based on the year 2009.

In February 2021 the European Commission met in Brussels to formulate a plan to beat cancer (BECA). The commission’s report concluded that ‘there is no safe level of alcohol consumption’ and included a call to action: ‘The Commission will review its promotion policy of alcoholic beverages and propose a mandatory indication of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration on alcoholic beverage labels before the end of 2022 and of health warnings on labels before the end 2023.’

On 3 February 2022 representatives of the Organisation of Wine and Vine (OIV) met with members of the World Health Organisation in Geneva to discuss wine, health and warning labels. That same day, Serge Hercberg tweeted a proposal to include alcoholic beverages in the Nutri-Score format with a large ‘F‘ along with a pictogram of risk to pregnant women and the actual quantities of sugar, calories and alcohol.

‘This is not a modification of Nutri-Score but a proposed addition to it,’ said Hercberg recently. ‘The consumption of alcohol in Europe has become trivialised. This label scenario provides a clear visual reminder and warning to consumers that alcoholic beverages, including wine, have been demonstrated to have a harmful effect on health, even in low doses, and especially regarding the development of cancers.

‘We are not saying that people should stop drinking wine or that it should be banned — I enjoy an occasional glass myself. But people must be aware of the real risk linked to regular consumption.’

The response was swift, heated and defensively aggressive, especially by Italians who feel particularly targeted.

‘Wine is society, history, and culture; it is also a way of protecting our environment by taking care of the areas where vines grow,’ said Giovanni Busi, president of the Vino Chianti consortium of producers in a press release issued 7 February. ‘The Nutri-Score labelling system is a new attack on Italian, French and Spanish wine. The entire wine sector risks serious damage. Europe needs to use common sense and stop this while there is still time,’ he said.

Moreover, a letter issued by the principal organisations of the Italian wine sector that was sent to members of the European Parliament 10 February, in advance of a plenary session scheduled for 15 February  to finalise the Beat Cancer plan and the labelling format that the European Union will adopt, stated: ‘We believe it is unscientific and harmful to demonise alcoholic beverages, especially wines, considering them as risk factors for cancer in and of themselves, given that the real problem is linked to abuse, not to moderate consumption’.

At about the same time, 15 European health organisations sent a joint letter to MEPs urging them to adopt the BECA report as is without any additional amendments or compromises.

Numerous amendments and alternatives have been proposed, including a labelling system called “Nutrinform Battery” formulated by Federalimentare (an organisation that represents and promotes the Italian food and beverage industry) and is supported by the Italian government.

This proposal will be presented to the public at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palazzo della Farnesina, Rome on 15 February.

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