20 October 2015

The writing is on the wall

It is in the nature of regulators to look for new areas to regulate. And because First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans was quick to point out that Better Regulation does not necessarily mean we should expect fewer EC initiatives, no one should rest on their laurels. 


That is all the more so since authorities, both at national and at EU level, increasingly interfere in citizens’ lifestyle choices. Often, that sounds reasonable: it makes sense to take measures in the interest of public health. Sometimes, these are targeted at products everybody agrees are unhealthy or even harmful. Yet, this meddling with what many see as an individual’s personal choice is increasingly becoming of concern to a wider audience – and may deeply affect the wider food industry. What if, for instance, your Big Mac, Giant or Whopper comes with the warning that “Big Burgers make Big Children”, or your favourite Belgian craft beer (the labels of which are often close to art) can no longer be distinguished from, say, the cheapest water/hops/yeast brew at a low cost supermarket, as they’re both being sold in identical bottles, deprived of any branding?


This is not such a far-fetched idea as it may seem, as the call by public health advocates for far-reaching measures covering unhealthy products gets louder. Back in 2013, WHO Director General Margaret Chan stated that “[p]ublic health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol”. This year, the WHO followed up with a document on “Sugar intake for adults and children”; one on obesity is on the way. The OECD, supported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the WHO, recently published a paper called “Tackling Harmful Alcohol Use” that implicitly calls for tax and price measures to raise alcohol prices. In an article in reputable medical journal The Lancet, academics called for advertising restrictions, taxation, labelling requirements, manufacturing restrictions and point-of-sale measures to be applied to ‘unhealthy’ foods.


It seems to work: in the EU, lively debates are ongoing on issues such as nutritional profiles and the compatibility of a (now withdrawn) Danish fat tax with EU-law; the French national assembly will soon be voting on a bill that introduces further preventive measures on tobacco, alcohol and food; the Irish Government approved an extensive package of measures to deal with alcohol misuse including minimum unit pricing for alcoholic products, the regulation of advertising and marketing of alcohol, health labelling of alcohol products and regulation of sports sponsorship (on top, Irish NGOs are calling for a “social responsibility levy” on the alcohol industry). The list goes on and on.


The approach towards food chains, soft drinks or alcohol producers and, not in the least, the retailers that sell such products is similar to the one that was – quite effectively - used to curb tobacco use. It involves reports by reputable research institutions, calls to exclude the respective industries from policy debates or trade treaties and ultimately the shaping of a wide societal debate. That debate is taking place, and it is broadening. Think tank Farm Europe for example, in a publication on its website in November 2015, pointed out that, whilst the protection of intellectual property rights is an essential element for the success of the Single Market, “some of the proposed public health measures potentially [undermine] this protection” and that “it is questionable whether health arguments can be assumed to supersede other (fundamental) rights.”


The experiences with tobacco make it likely that these issues will increasingly and prominently feature on the EU’s law makers’ agenda. It might thus be wise for producers and retailers to at least step up their voluntary efforts and, by doing so, contribute to better regulation that indeed means less regulation.
 
Mathijs Peters
Director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies


 

Related contacts :