Whitehouse sustainable food systems policy bites – February 2022

Every month, the Whitehouse food and nutrition policy team brings you the latest policy and regulatory developments, helping you understand and shape the future of sustainable food systems. You can subscribe to our newsletter here to get exclusive insights directly into your inbox.

In addition, below you can find some of the top stories that caught our attention this month:

New EU platform to promote European algae industry

On 9th February, the European Commission launched its ‘EU4Algae’ stakeholder platform which is set to accelerate the development of the European algae industry and promote algae for culinary and other uses among consumers and businesses across the EU. Traditionally used in Asian cuisine and gaining popularity in the West, particularly in vegan dishes, algae is increasingly noted for its nutritional value as well as its many sustainability benefits.

As such, algae have also attracted the interest of policy-makers. As part of the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy,  algae is set to become an important source of alternative protein, thereby promoting the transition to sustainable food systems and increasing global food security.

Stakeholders will be provided with more information on how the Commission envisions the role of algae when it releases its EU Algae initiative by the end of 2022. The EU4algae platform will be launched earlier, during summer 2022, to gather information from stakeholders and support the implementation of the EU4Algae initiative. Becoming part of the platform represents also an opportunity for the industry to engage early on regulatory and policy framework related to algae.

Beyond its use in the food industry, algae are increasingly used in different sustainable industrial applications such as biodegradable plastics as well as in feed. Associated with many sustainability assets (such as its cultivation process which reduces carbon dioxide, phosphorus and nitrogen in marine ecosystems), the uptake in Europe of algae production and consumption has been judged to be too slow by the Director-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Charlina Vitcheva.


Cross-party coalition of MEPs demand EU-funded research on NGTs

On 8th February, a group of 31 MEPs sent a joint open letter to three European Commissioners – Mariya Gabriel (Innovation, Culture, Education and Youth), Stella Kyriakides (Health and Food Safety), and Virginijus Sinkevičius (Environment) – in which they call for “dedicated EU research” into the potential risks of so-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) produced with new genomic techniques (NGTs). The letter emphasises the need for the EU to enable the detection and traceability of GM products across the food chain.

Representatives of the EU seed industry have asserted that no methods exist yet to understand whether genetic changes in an organism are naturally derived or a consequence of gene editing. Therefore, the letter calls for further investigation to develop state of the art risk assessment and detection methods and a scientific consensus on this matter. One of the signatories, MEP Martin Häusling even accused the Commission of plucking claims about the safety and untraceable nature of gene-edited crops “out of thin air”.

The letter – which was signed by MEPs from across the political spectrum – demonstrates that the discussions on NGTs are still at the conceptual phases and that political discussions on the safety of NGTs are still ongoing. These debates are intensified by the fact that the Commission has invested in research and is openly supportive of development on NGTs.

A Commission proposal to support the development of plants produced through certain NGTs, is expected to be published in mid-2023, which will then kick-off further debates in the European Parliament.


Revision of the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC) – Where are we at?

Many stakeholders were pleased to see that more than a year and a half since the publication of the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F), the European Commission has recently made important progress in gathering stakeholders’ views to support the revision of the FIC, and with it inform the forthcoming proposals on front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL) and nutrient profiles.

Already since mid-December, all Europeans can have their say on Nutri-Score and other schemes via the public consultation on food labelling. And indeed, the nearly 500 consultation responses from business associations, private companies, non-government organisations and private citizens demonstrate that the revision of the rules on food labelling is a hot topic. The responses show that business associations and EU citizens dominate the discussions, representing more than 50% of all respondents. Companies and business associations come third with 15%, followed, by NGOs and consumer organisations, the latter who are among those traditionally calling for stricter labelling measures.

Interestingly, the consultation also shows the division among Member States on the topic. Concerned that the Nutri-Score may discriminate against traditional products such as olive oil and Iberian ham, an alliance of Southern countries led by Italy has in the past months stepped up its efforts to block the adoption of the colour scheme at the EU level. And so it is also no surprise that companies from Italy, Greece and Hungary are among the top respondents to the consultation.

Stakeholders have until 7th March to share their views on issues such as the anticipated impact of FOPNL and nutrient profiles, the correlation between labelling and purchase decisions, consumer behaviour, reformation efforts, and more.

Those who like it more technical maybe be more interested in the targeted stakeholder study that has been launched by the external contractor ICF last week. Designed to gather expert evidence and data to support the impact assessment on the revision of the FIC, the 160 pages strong questionnaire explores technical issues such as the anticipated commercial impact of mandatory labelling, particularly concerning a possible decline in demand and occurring costs of introducing labelling, the impact of labelling on trade across Member States, and the consequences for competitiveness. The targeted consultation is open until 11th March.

In the meantime, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is in the process of finalising its scientific opinion on nutrient profiling, with publication expected in March. In contrast, it remains quiet on the Joint Research Center front, where an updated literature review on FOPNL was expected to be published in August 2021 but remains delayed.


The European Commission published its legislative proposal on corporate sustainability due diligence

On 23rd February, the European Commission published its legislative proposal on corporate sustainability due diligence.

This proposal will require EU companies to identify and, where necessary, prevent, end or mitigate the adverse impacts of their activities on human rights, such as child labour and exploitation of workers, and on the environment, for example pollution and biodiversity loss.

These due diligence requirements will apply to all EU limited liability companies of substantial size and economic power (with 500+ employees and EUR 150 million+ in net turnover worldwide) (Group 1 companies); other limited liability companies operating in defined high impact sectors, which do not meet both Group 1 thresholds, but have more than 250 employees and a net turnover of EUR 40 million worldwide and more – for these companies, rules will start to apply two years later than for group 1 (Group 2 companies); and non-EU companies active in the EU with a turnover threshold aligned with Group 1 and 2, generated in the EU.

The due diligence requirements will apply to a company’s own operations as well as their subsidiaries and their value chains. For companies which do not adequately apply due diligence requirements, they will face non-compliance fines from EU Member States while victims will also have the opportunity to take legal action against these companies for damages.


The fight against obesity continues

The UK Government recently launched a new NHS Food Scanner app which offers consumers alternatives to foods considered to be unhealthy by the app algorithm. The app works by scanning barcodes of selected shopping items and offering alternative items with less saturated fat, sugar or salt. The initiative is part of the Government’s Better Health campaign, which offers free tools and support to those wanting to lose weight, get active, quit smoking or drink less.

Combating obesity has been on the UK political agenda, particularly since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Public health minister, Maggie Throup, recognised the “pressure” faced throughout the pandemic meant dietary habits had “drastically changed” as a result. For children, lockdowns, school closures and suspended sports activities meant that they were more exposed to foods that are deemed unhealthy and spent less time doing physical activity. This has been confirmed the Guardian, which recently reported a sharp rise in obesity amongst children since the start of the pandemic.

In another nudge to curb the obesity trends, the UK is in talks to place restrictions on the advertising and promotion of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), which would mean that no adverts on HFSS foods will be shown on TV between 5.30 and 9pm, a total ban on advertising of HFSS online and restrictions on buy-one-get-two deals and location in store for these products.

On a side note: World Obesity Day is around the corner, and the World Health Organisation is set to launch a report on “Obesity in Europe” on 3rd March.


European Commission-led research explores the benefits of Vitamin D

On 18th January, the European Commission’s research and development programme CORDIS unveiled a study titled “Vitamin D receptor, STAT3, and TET2 cooperate to establish tolerogenesis”, which explores the key role of Vitamin D3 in controlling the body’s immune response against autoimmune diseases.

The researchers showed, for the first time, that when the vitamin D receptor binds with a specific protein, the STAT3 protein, it activates a DNA demethylating agent (TET2)– which in dendritic cells helps activate immune tolerance genes.

In autoimmune diseases such as sclerosis, the immune system does not function as it should, but when dendritic cells are treated with vitamin D, they develop immune tolerance. This finding suggests that treatment with tolerant dendritic cells could slow disease progression in people with automimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis. As such, the study provides valuable insights into the crucial role of vitamin D in controlling immune response. A clinical trial endorsing the study’s findings is currently conducted in Germany, and will provide further clarity on the study’s initial findings.


Want to continue the conversation on how organisations can effectively engage in initiatives as outlined above? Please do contact our team via andrea.solana@whitehousecomms.com.

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