EU must change tack as growing poverty undermines response to obesity crisis

Coming off of three gruelling years of economic downturn, EU citizens have made themselves loud and clear on their priorities in the build-up to next year’s elections. The recently-released bloc-wide Eurobarometer survey has identified poverty and social exclusion as the primary challenges voters want the European Parliament to address, with 36% of respondents ranking this issue first among their concerns, followed notably by public health.

The fact that the public’s agenda is topped by a tandem of cost-of-living woes and health fears is no coincidence, as these two issues are intricately linked. Just look, for example, at the continent’s growing obesity epidemic. With the European elections just six months away and the Commission’s attention largely occupied by “high politics” files such as migration or the war in Ukraine, EU decisionmakers will need to adapt upcoming policies to on-the-ground needs, addressing the problems that most impact citizens’ daily lives and, notably, recognising the interconnections between obesity and poverty.

A darkening picture emerging in Europe

 While eurozone inflation rates are falling faster than expected, the growth forecast for 2023 and 2024 has dimmed, with the European Central Bank (ECB) warning last month of a potential recession on the horizon, and ECB president Christine Lagarde has cautioned that it is not yet time “to start declaring victory.”

According to the Eurobarometer, the bloc’s citizens broadly agree, as more than 70% of respondents expect a downturn in living conditions next year and nearly half report having already taken a hit from the rising inflation of recent years. What’s more, over one-third of Europeans have expressed facing difficulties paying bills sometimes or most of the time—a cost-of-living crisis which has fuelled rising food poverty.

Last year, roughly one-fifth of EU citizens at risk of poverty could not afford an adequate meal consisting of meat, fish or vegetables, with this rate exceeding 40% in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary, as the number of Europeans facing poverty or social exclusion surpassed 95 million. Moreover, this deteriorating situation is coinciding with and reinforcing soaring obesity levels seen across the continent – a public health issue which now affects nearly 60% of adults and 1 in 3 children – as people increasingly turn to cheaper, less-nutritious foods.

Medical research has long established this obesity-poverty paradox, with researchers warning that people in low-income households are forced to turn to inexpensive, readily-available processed foods with high calorie content yet low nutritional value, posing an urgent long-term threat that must be addressed.

EU nutrition label debate could add fuel to fire

While many policymakers in Brussels are taking the issue seriously, one of its most high-profile policy initiatives to tackle EU-wide obesity seriously misses the mark. Announced in 2020, the European Commission’s notion of implementing a mandatory, harmonised front-of-package nutrition label aims to support healthier diets across the bloc. However, the proposal has faced significant delays, most notably because of the deeply-rooted problems with one-time frontrunner label Nutri-Score.

Nutri-Score’s heavy-handed, reductionist grading system has attracted criticism from a broad range of EU member states, ranging from Czechia and Latvia to Greece and Cyprus, with its algorithm’s excessive focus on individual components at the expense of micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, sparking concerns that European consumers could be given misleading health information. Indeed, Italy and Romania have banned Nutri-Score on this basis, with one-time stalwart Switzerland potentially set to follow suit.

While Nutri-Score is launching a revised algorithm on 1 January, this half-hearted attempt to counter mounting opposition looks set to fail on all fronts. Firstly, the year-long grace period for food companies to update their packaging labels has created a significant risk of consumer confusion. What’s more, newly-unflattering scores are turning former industry friends into foes, as exemplified by the soft drinks industry’s recent criticism and food manufacturer Bjorg conveniently dropping Nutri-Score.

Interestingly, this sequence has a precedent across the Atlantic, with a University of Georgia study finding that US-based retailers began dropping the now-defunct NuVal label after its 2013 algorithm alteration lowered scores. Moreover, researchers discovered an unintended consequence—the exacerbation of socioeconomic nutritional gaps, as grocery stores were forced to decrease the prices of poorly-rated products to boost dwindling sales, pushing lower-income families to purchase some unhealthy goods in higher quantities.

Driving change at community level

With the constant back-and-forth over Nutri-Score’s flawed algorithm, it’s clear that persisting with the notion of imposing a bloc-wide front-of-pack nutritional label could hopelessly confuse European consumers and would do little to tackle the obesity crisis sweeping the continent.

Instead, the European Parliament must step up to defend consumer interests and influence a more effective approach. Encouragingly for the EP, the latest Eurobarometer indicates that 7 out of 10 EU citizens believe EU actions impact their lives, while over 60% hold positive views on EU membership. Concluding that the European people “trust the EU to find solutions,” EP President Roberta Metsola must nevertheless ensure that her institution’s response to core issues like poverty and obesity is based in community-focused action, given significant public frustration over weak citizen and local government influence on EU decision-making.

To make nutritious foods more affordable and accessible in low-income communities, which are disproportionately affected by food deserts, Brussels should offer funding, legislative and technical support to scale up innovative local initiatives, such as guaranteeing that every child in the EU has access to at least one healthy meal per day in school – an ambition that Spain’s EU Council Presidency would like to see turned into a European directive. Switzerland’s ‘sharing economy’ community pantries invention as well as France and Belgium’s food ‘social security’ trial schemes offer similarly promising possibilities.

In terms of infrastructure, the EU could provide collaborate with local authorities to develop capacities in more inclusive urban planning solutions, namely to expand access to sporting facilities and green space within more deprived areas. Finally, as Spanish Presidency’s High Commissioner against Child Poverty Ernesto Gasco has rightly advocated, Brussels should target more funding to promote physical activity for young people, citing projects backed by Madrid.

By trading its disconnected approach with a firmly localised, place-based model of tackling poverty, social exclusion and income-based health gaps, the EU would send a strong signal to its citizens ahead of next year’s elections and beyond. With many Europeans still reeling from the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis while the obesity epidemic gathers pace, Brussels must ensure that it heeds the call in time.

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