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Brussels faces new bellyaches over misguided policies putting Europe’s food sector at risk




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Food policy has always been a thorny issue for Brussels—a widespread perception that the EU had banned “bendy bananas” became a Leave slogan during the Brexit referendum, for example—and policymakers seem to have stepped in it again, with French cheese makers up in arms about a proposed EU recycling law, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR).

They accuse the proposed bill, which aims to phase out single-use packaging in favor of recycled materials, of putting one of France’s most prized culinary delicacies in peril. Cheesemakers see within the law the possible banning of one of their most distinctive calling cards, the familiar wooden box in which Camembert is sold.

As Camembert aficionados know, the wooden box is more than a rustic touch to evoke picnics and garden parties. The light wooden box is irreplaceable, not only because it is vital for preserving the unique taste of the cheese, as well as often required for the aging process of the cheese, but also because it offers structural stability which allows the cheese not to collapse during transport.

With European elections looming, legislation that could ban Camembert’s elegant wooden boxes risks conveying a caricature of an out-of-touch, nanny state Europe and enraging an agricultural community already irked over other policy proposals such as the introduction of harmonized front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels.

Learning how to prioritize impactful legislation

Unfortunately, policymakers in the Brussels bubble have a tendency to reinforce many Europeans’ feeling that the European institutions misunderstand what is important to citizens, as they pursue controversial food policies with wide-ranging effects while mysteriously overlooking actual pressing problems.

An animated debate has raged for years over Brussels’ plans to harmonize FOP nutritional labels, with many experts in the agri-food sector fearing that the EU is on the verge of a serious


policy misstep. For a long time, Nutri-Score, the French-born label, has been the darling of the FOP label movement—but the label has suffered enormous controversies since coming into existence. While its purported aim is to support healthy eating by classifying foods from good to bad with the help of a letter grade, constant flip-flopping on the label’s algorithm has led to rightful pushback from European countries, several of which have now banned the label’s use, deeming it “misleading” for consumers. It’s not just consumers that are at risk from Nutri-score, either—farmers fear that its demonization of certain heritage foods could cut sharply into their business.

After years of controversy over the proposal to impose a controversial label like Nutri-score across the bloc, Brussels really can’t afford another questionable policy which will cement European agricultural producers’ sentiment that EU lawmakers do not speak for them—yet the proposed recycling law seems like just that.

Environmentally and economically doubtful

In its current version, the proposed text requires all packaging put on the market to be recyclable by 2030, forcing packagers to set up a recycling chain. European Commission officials have insisted that the law would not prevent the use of wooden packaging like the famous Camembert boxes, but would merely force producers to improve the recyclability of the boxes—but producers have warned that a setting up a wood recycling chain would be difficult and far too expensive—some 200 times more expensive than glass.

Industry experts have questioned why wood is in Brussels’ crosshairs at all—as Guillaume Poitrinal, Chairman of the French Heritage Foundation, put it: “the wooden box— low carbon, light, biodegradable, made in France— is better for the planet than plastic made with Saudi oil, transformed in China with coal-powered electricity and which will end up in the oceans”. Claire Lacroix, chief executive of Lacroix, a packaging company that makes boxes for the largest Camembert manufacturers, further noted that “light wood packaging accounts for 0,001 percent of household packaging waste.”

It seems, then, as if upending an entire industry is hardly worth this infinitesimal environmental benefit. The proposed text has significant ripple effects putting 2000 jobs and 45 companies at risk. With jobs and companies at risk, against a backdrop of a global cost of living crisis and an unemployment rate in France climbing to 7.4% in October, it’s no surprise that both small and large companies are joining forces against the proposal.

While the proposal will supposedly exempt cheeses which have protected designated of origin labels, this makes up a relatively small portion of Camemberts sold, and leading producers of the cheese have warned that this exemption does not solve the problem. As Lactalis underlined, “The wooden box is not used by chance. Its particularity is that it plays a role in the aging, the maturation of certain types of cheeses. In fact, it is quite permeable, and therefore it allows the cheese to continue to mature. It's not just packaging”—something that rings true for non-AOP Camemberts as well.

Paying homage to our history

The cultural and historical value of our food is unmeasurable, which makes it doubly unfortunate when Brussels chooses to propose policies that actively endanger it. Many European foods are made using artisanal methods that have been passed down through generations—including the Camembert which is threatened by the PPWR, and other heritage products like jamon serrano which are threatened by FOP labels like Nutri-Score. Food in Europe is much more than simply sustenance, it is an integral part of the tapestry of European life, embodying tradition, community, and diversity.

With elections looming, Brussels would do well to remember that policies that could negatively affect Europe’s cultural heritage are rarely popular with voters. The proposed PPWR regulation could decimate an industry, cost thousands of European jobs and leave a bad taste in Europeans’ mouths right before they go to the polls.

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