The Permanent Mission of Italy to the International Organizations in Geneva expresses concern over the content of the draft document titled “WHO guiding principles and framework manual for front-of-pack labelling for promoting healthy diets” and about the modalities of its drafting and early circulation.
Italy has been repeatedly asking for more transparency from WHO’s side in the drafting of policy documents and a greater involvement of member States: unfortunately, also in this case, a document that concerns topics of crucial importance to Italy and other countries is about to be published without having been analyzed by Member States’ health officers and experts. The document (whose draft dated December 2018 was recently informally shared with the Italian Permanent Mission) has been prepared by the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development without a consultation process with WHO member States and is regarded to be ready for publication. Italy expresses the hope that the document will not be published in its current version before the start of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labeling which will take place in Ottawa, on 13-17 May, thus avoiding to produce an undue interference on the Committee’s work.
Also on merit, large parts of this document’s content are questionable. The whole exercise is based on the concept of “nutrient profiles”, which is an entirely political concept with no scientific foundation whatsoever. At Page 11 it says: “Nutrient profiling is the science of classifying or ranking foods according to their nutritional composition,” a sentence also contained in a document on nutrient profiles on the WHO website (https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/profiling/en/).
In a letter addressed to the WHO Director-General, the Permanent Representative of Italy to the International Organization in Geneva, Ambassador Gian Lorenzo Cornado, asked to remove that statement from both documents, since it is absolutely groundless to define nutrient profiling “a science.”
Even the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is a purely scientific body, in an opinion dated 2008, recognized the “scientific limitations intrinsic in the use of nutrient profiles to classify foods”. Among various arguments, EFSA highlighted the “inherent difficulty in seeking to apply to individual food products nutrient intake recommendations that are established for the overall diet”: a concept that Italy totally shares, as it is not by waging wars against single foods that obesity and diet-related NCDs can be tackled.
In his letter to WHO Director-General, Ambassador Cornado highlighted that “in countries where nutrient profiles have been used for front-of-pack labelling, the thresholds set to distinguish the foods considered to be healthy from the ones considered unhealthy are all different from each other: just another confirmation that there is nothing scientific about nutrient profiles”. Ambassador Cornado also stressed that “none of those countries recorded the slightest improvement on human health or on obesity rates: a pretty obvious outcome, as those systems do not actually lead consumers to make healthier choices”. To provide an example, the purchase of many Italian quality foods that are enjoyed all around the world – let’s mention one for all, extra-virgin olive oil – is discouraged with red or black signs.
Ambassador Cornado also recalled the motion voted unanimously last December by the Italian Parliament. An important passage of that motion states as follows: “It is necessary to avoid the spread of evaluation systems for food products based solely on nutrient profiles or on graphic representations that place unjustified emphasis on the composition of the single product, regardless of the mode and frequency of consumption.”
A Nomisma research in UK carried out one year after the introduction of a voluntary traffic-light labelling system showed a dramatic decrease in the sale of all the most typical Italian quality foods: a clear demonstration that systems based on nutrient profiles do not lead to healthier choices and penalize Italian traditional foods. Italy is actively engaged in all international fora to prevent the misuse of nutrient profiles and to reaffirm the principle that all decisions regarding nutrition by both WHO and FAO stick to the highest level of scientific evidence.