The consumer is best served by simple symbols on packaging

22 March 2010

The consumer is best served by simple symbols on packaging

Political etiquette and food safety

On 16th March Brussels hosts a discussion of our daily food and drink. The European Parliament Committee on Public Health and Food Safety will make clear what it feels should be central to this discussion: healthy food or corporate interests? I'm not waiting with bated breath, because what's really at stake isn't even on the agenda.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the SP

Kartika LiotardProviding information
The European Parliament should have voted last year on the 1,332 amendments to the proposal on food labelling. Thankfully a complete shambles was avoided, but after last summer's elections I found myself a member of a European Parliament still more right-wing than its predecessor, and one which believed even more deeply in the beneficial nature of the market. Discussion of the Sommer Report on food labelling is being conducted for the most part amongst economists, lawyers and representatives of the industry. While everyone knows that in relation to improving food labels we need the contribution of food experts and communications specialists, debate continually comes back to the problems of manufacturers and distributors. For the German Christian Democrat Renate Sommer, this is all about the provision of information about food; for me what counts more than anything is the question of how we can help consumers to take decisions.

Managing information

Well, I'm a lawyer myself. And I do take heed of the maze of small print on misleading labels. But if Brussels were to demand that henceforth the letters which make up this small print must henceforth be 3 millimetres (just over a tenth of an inch) in height, advertisers would always find some way to make enough noise to drown out anything drawing attention to the unhealthy aspects of their product. Even if this involves giving the product a healthy-sounding name or claiming in some subtle way that it is good for you. Some packaging is clearer about what isn't inside than what is. The dispute should not be about provision of information but about the best way to manage this information from the consumers' point of view.


There are a number of Brussels absurdities which form easy targets in Renate Sommer's report, there simply because they attract publicity. Such as the pressing question as to whether mayonnaise is a solid or a liquid. Or the rather decadent issue of whether the EU should recognise gold leaf as a foodstuff. But no, what this is all about for me is to be found on page 126. Consumer rights turn out to be no more than an alibi for policies which benefit major food corporations. Sommers draws attention in particular to four 'abuses': EU rules are obscure, creating legal uncertainty for enterprises, leading in turn to obstacles to trade and disruption of competition. Would the consumer then have any difficulty understanding the food labels? No. Yet the whole discussion is being conducted against the background of producers' problems.

Simple symbol

The economic interest shows a completely different policy perspective than is encouraged by the title under which the report appeared on the agenda of the meeting: “Information on foodstuffs for the consumer". It suited the European Commission to frame the discussion as if it concerned such matters as the fight against obesity. Journalists would then be given an immediate "picture" relating to the policy. Still more often, it suits the EU to dictate the media's perspective: dumping agricultural surpluses you call 'Aid to Africa'; or you get rid of such surpluses in the form of what you call 'schoolfruit' . Pesticides you give the bland name 'crop protection resources'.

Now they're calling this 'harmonisation and uniformisation' of food information. But as soon as you read further you can see that this is a 'European' perspective concerning the interests of industry. The only consumers to which the measure will be of any use will be those buying food outside their own countries who have mastered not only the language of that country but food industry technical language.


I suspect that most people scarcely know the difference between a kilojoule and a joule. And that even mature members of the public understand little of the list of ingredients on soft drinks or yoghurts, for example. We know from the medical sector that an overdose of information can make a supposedly informative leaflet meaningless. What can really help the consumer are simple symbols. Yes, in this case I'm quite happy with symbolic politics!

Combating obesity

The EU aims to communicate with the "averagely developed, informed and healthy citizen.” Yet anyone who takes a real interest in the combating of obesity must take as their starting point the weakest party. This means that rules should not concern the size of letters and numbers; rules should instead offer help in handling warnings. The European Commission must acknowledge that no European scientific study offers grounds for their policy and that no scientific experts have been consulted. That is no only "incomprehensible" and "questionable in principle" (to quote the report from Renate Sommer to be put to the vote on 16th March), it is, in my view, extraordinarily arrogant.

Matthew Effect

The new policy will widen the division between the informed and the rest. In the Netherlands alone there are, according to the Dutch Language Union (the 'Taalunie'), 1.3 million people who have difficulty reading or who are functionally illiterate, and a further 250,000 who are completely illiterate. And if course that's to say nothing of children, or people who really have left their glasses at home. All of these people can be aided only by packaging with clear symbols. Economic thought concerns itself with the well-to-do, the “haves”. But when dealing with public health and with food safety it is better to think about the “have nots”.

In the 1960s the sociologist Robert K. Merton introduced the idea of the Matthew Effect. This is the idea that "...unto every one that hath shall be given... but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." Will the Christian Democrat friends of Renate Sommer in the European Parliament take note of this Biblical reference (Matthew, Ch.25 v.29) and return to the straight and narrow path, daring to give food safety a central role in this? Experience unfortunately suggests the opposite. The political etiquette of the average Christian Democrat is, when it comes to the vote, guided by neoliberal market-think. I won't be holding my breath.

This article first appeared in Dutch on 15th March on the website Joop.nl

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