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Diet

MEPs' opposition of GM pollen labelling in honey a sting for European beekeepers say Greens

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beesThe European Parliament voted today (15 January) on proposals to revise EU rules on honey. A majority of MEPs voted in favour of proposals meaning that the presence of GM pollen in honey would not need to be indicated on the label.

The Greens criticised the vote. Food and environment spokesman Bart Staes said: "This vote is a sting for European beekeepers and consumers. The ECJ ruled in 2011 that honey contaminated with genetically modified pollen would have to be labelled as such under EU legislation. In response, the Commission presented a revision of EU legislation on honey, proposing that the presence of GM pollen in honey would not need to be indicated on the label, turning the ruling on its head. We regret the failure of a majority of MEPs to overturn this proposal.

"With EU countries importing honey from GM-producing countries and two of the main EU honey-producing member states (Spain and Romania) having authorised the production of this GM maize, honey contaminated with GM pollen will increasingly be available on our shop shelves. Honey containing GM pollen should be labelled as such, both to provide certainty for consumers and beekeepers. Regrettably, a majority of MEPs was swayed by an intense lobbying campaign, led by honey importers. The vote is a slap in the face for European consumers and beekeepers, who have again and again spoken out in favour of transparent labelling rules."

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As #COVID-19 drives action on obesity, could 'soda taxes' work for food?

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In both the UK and France, a number of parliamentarians are pushing for new taxes on certain food products, building on the example of existing soda taxes which charge levies for drinks with high sugar content. Advocates of the policies want governments to leverage their influence over pricing and address Europeans’ expanding waistlines via their wallets.

Indeed, across the EU, nutritional experts and public health officials are seeking new ways of promoting healthier eating habits, including the introduction of junk food advertising restrictions and fruit and vegetable subsidies. Public opinion seems to be in favour of an interventionist approach: 71% of Britons support subsidising healthy foods and almost half (45%) are in favour of taxing unhealthy ones. Similar trends have been observed across Europe.

While these ideas seem on the surface to make straightforward logical sense, they bring with them a far thornier set of questions. How will European governments actually determine which foods are healthy and which are unhealthy? Which products will they tax, and which ones will they subsidise?

Tackling obesity head-on

It’s little surprise the British government is now ramping up plans to tackle the obesity epidemic. In 2015, 57% of the UK populace was overweight, with the World Health Organisation predicting that percentage will reach 69% by 2030; one in 10 British children are obese before they even begin their schooling. The coronavirus pandemic has further underlined the dangers of unhealthy eating. 8% of British COVID sufferers are morbidly obese, despite a mere 2.9% of the population falling into this weight classification.

The Prime Minister himself has personal experience with the dangers of this particular comorbidity. Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care with coronavirus symptoms earlier this year, and while he remains clinically obese, his attitudes towards tackling the problem have clearly changed. In addition to shedding 14 lbs, Johnson has performed an about-turn on his views on food legislation, after previously dubbing levies on unhealthy products “sin stealth taxes” that were symptomatic of a “creeping nanny state”.

Johnson now advocates tighter regulation of junk food marketing and clearer calorie counts on restaurant menu items, while campaigners urge him to consider subsidising healthier options. A report from non-profit thinktank Demos found almost 20 million people in the UK cannot afford to eat healthier produce, while recent research indicates subsidising healthier foodstuffs would be more effective in fighting obesity than taxing unhealthier ones.

France appears to be following a similar course of action. A senatorial report released in late May received cross-party approval and could be enshrined in French law in the near future. Alongside detailed analysis of France’s deteriorating diets, the report contains 20 concrete proposals for solving the crisis. One of those proposals involves taxing unhealthy food products, which the study’s authors state should be defined in accordance with France’s Nutri-Score front of pack (FOP) labelling system – one of the candidates currently being considered by the European Commission for use across the European Union.

The battle of the FOP labels

While the recently unveiled Farm 2 Fork (F2F) strategy sets out a process for adopting a uniform FOP system across the entire EU, the Commission has thus far refrained from endorsing any one candidate. The debate over labels could have a drastic impact on how individual member states answer these key questions, not least because it is bringing the complexities of defining what constitutes a balanced diet into sharp focus.

The Nutri-Score FOP system operates upon a colour-coded sliding scale, with foods perceived to have the highest nutritional value graded “A” and shaded dark green, while those with the poorest content are given an “E” certification and marked red. Proponents argue Nutri-Score quickly and clearly demonstrates nutritional data to customers and helps them to make informed decisions. The system has already been adopted on a voluntary basis by countries including Belgium, Luxembourg, and of course France.

However, the system has numerous detractors. Most vocal among these is Italy, which argues that many of the country’s signature food products (including its famous olive oils and its cured meats) are penalised by Nutri-Score, even though the country’s traditional Mediterranean diet is lauded as one of the healthiest in the world.

As an alternative, Italy has proposed its own Nutrinform FOP label, which does not categorise foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather presents nutritional information in the form of a charging battery infographic. Nutrinform was approved by the European Commission (EC) for commercial use just this month, while agriculture ministers from other southern EU countries, including Romania and Greece, have spoken out in favour of the Italian position.

France itself seems to have noticed the potential repercussions of Nutri-Score when it comes to the country’s most important culinary products – and especially its cheeses. By the French government’s own admission, the Nutri-Score algorithm for calculating grades has been “adapted” when it comes to products like cheese and butter, lest the system undermine the appeal of French dairy products.

That special treatment has not satisfied all of Nutri-Score’s French critics, however, with figures like French senator Jean Bizet warning of potential “negative effects” on the dairy sector. Nutri-Score’s real-world effectiveness in influencing consumer decisions has also been questioned, with researchers finding the FOP label only improved the “nutritional quality” of the foods consumers ultimately bought by 2.5%.

The heated nature of this debate helps explain why the Commission is struggling to standardise FOP labelling across European shelves. It also reflects the deep levels of disagreement over what constitutes a balanced, healthy diet, both between and within individual EU member states. Before legislators or regulators in London, Paris, or other European capitals can make concrete policy decisions on taxing or subsidising particular foods, they will need to find satisfactory answers to the questions that will invariably surround their chosen criteria.

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#FishMicronutrients ‘slipping through the hands’ of malnourished people

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Millions of people are suffering from malnutrition despite some of the most nutritious fish species in the world being caught near their homes, according to new research published in Nature.

Children in many tropical coastal areas are particularly vulnerable and could see significant health improvements if just a fraction of the fish caught nearby was diverted into their diets.

As well as omega-3 fatty acids, fish are also a source of important micronutrients, for example iron, zinc, and calcium. Yet, more than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, which are linked to maternal mortality, stunted growth, and pre-eclampsia. For some nations in Africa, such deficiencies are estimated to reduce GDP by up to 11%.

This new research suggests enough nutrients are already being fished out of the oceans to substantially reduce malnutrition and, at a time when the world is being asked to think more carefully about where and how we produce our food, fishing more may not be the answer.

Lead author Professor Christina Hicks of Lancaster University’s Environment Centre said:  “Nearly half the global population lives within 100km of the coast. Half of those countries have moderate to severe deficiency risks; yet, our research shows that the nutrients currently fished out of their waters exceeds the dietary requirements for all under five year olds within their coastal band. If these catches were more accessible locally they could have a huge impact on global food security and combat malnutrition-related disease in millions of people.”

The Lancaster University-led research team, collected data on the concentration of seven nutrients in more than 350 species of marine fish and developed a statistical model for predicting how much nutrition any given species of fish contains, based on their diet, sea water temperature and energy expenditure.

This predictive modelling, led by Aaron MacNeil of Dalhousie University, allowed researchers to accurately predict the likely nutrient composition of  thousands of fish species that have never been nutritionally analysed before.

Using current fish landings data, they used this model to quantify the global distribution of nutrients available from existing marine fisheries. This information was then compared with the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies around the world.

Their results showed important nutrients were readily available in the fish already being caught but they were not reaching many local populations, who were often most in need.

For example, the amount of fish currently caught off the West African coast - where people suffer from high levels of zinc, iron and vitamin A deficiencies - was sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the people living within 100km of the sea.

Parts of Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean were just some of the other coastal regions showing a similar pattern of high malnutrition despite sufficient fish nutrients in the local catch.

Researchers say that a complex picture of international and illegal fishing, trade in seafood - along with cultural practices and norms - are standing between malnourished people and the more-than-adequate fish nutrients caught on their doorstep.

Dr Andrew Thorne-Lyman, a nutritionist and co-author from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said: “Fish is thought of by many as a protein but our findings suggest that it’s actually an important source of many vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that we often see are missing in the diets of poor populations throughout the world. It’s time that food security policymakers acknowledge the nutrient-rich food swimming right under their noses and think about what can be done to increase access to fish by those populations.”

Dr Philippa Cohen of WorldFish said: “Our research clearly shows that the way fish are distributed needs to be carefully looked at. Currently many of the World’s fisheries are managed to get the most revenue, often by directing their efforts towards catching the highest-priced species and shovelling fish landings towards the mouths of the rich in cities or feeding pets and livestock in wealthier countries.  It is slipping through the hands of small-scale fishers and malnourished people. We need to find a way to put human nutrition at the core of fisheries policies.”

The study highlights the need for fish policies that are focused on improving nutrition rather than simply increasing volumes of food produced or the revenues generated from fish exports.

Associate Professor Aaron MacNeil, of the Ocean Frontier Institute at Dalhousie University, said: “As demand for ocean resources has increased up to the limit of what can be harvested sustainably, projects like this show that there are opportunities to fish strategically to address fundamental challenges to human health and wellbeing.

“This global research shows how interdisciplinary marine science can be used to directly address threats to human health at local scales. The ability for local people to solve local problems using local resources is huge, and we could not have done it without such a diverse team of researchers working together.”

The paper ‘Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies’ is published in Nature (3rd October 2019) will be available here

More information.

The research was funded by the European Research Council (ERC), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Royal Society University Research Fellowship (URF), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) led by WorldFish, supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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#Milk, #Fruits and #Vegetables distributed to schoolchildren thanks to EU programme

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With the start of a new school year, the EU school fruit, vegetables and milk scheme will resume in participating EU countries for 2019-2020.

The EU school scheme aims at promoting healthy eating and balanced diets through the distribution of fruit, vegetables and milk products while also proposing educational programmes on agriculture and good nutrition.

More than 20 million children benefited from this programme during the 2017-2018 school year, representing 20% of children across the European Union.

Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan said: “Adopting healthy eating habits from a young age is important. Thanks to the EU school scheme, our young citizens will not only enjoy quality European products but also learn about nutrition, farming, food production and the hard work that comes with it.”

Each school year, a total of €250 million is allocated to the scheme. For 2019-2020, €145 million were set aside for fruit and vegetables, and €105 million for milk and other dairy products. Although participation in the scheme is voluntary, all EU member states chose to participate, for either a section or all of the scheme. National allocations for EU countries taking part in the scheme for this school year were approved and adopted by the European Commission in March 2019. Countries can also top up EU aid with national funds.

Member states can decide on the way to implement the scheme. This includes the type of products children will receive or the theme of the educational measures put in place. Nonetheless, the choice of products distributed needs to be based on health and environmental considerations, seasonality, availability and variety.

More information

EU school fruit & vegetable and milk scheme

Key facts and figures for the EU school scheme in 2017 - 2018

Teacher's Resource Pack

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