Dutch agricultural community hit as government dumps livestock farmers and adopts Nutri-Score

Dutch agricultural community hit as government dumps livestock farmers and adopts Nutri-Score

On May 2nd, the European Commission announced that it had approved two Dutch plans worth 1.47 billion euros to buy out livestock farmers to reduce nitrogen pollution. The Commission ruled that said plans are permissible under state aid rules. With the 1.47 billion euros, the Netherlands will compensate farmers who voluntarily close their farms near nature reserves. The Dutch goal of a third of cattle farms being closed within the next seven years is intended to help them reach their emission target of halving nitrogen emissions by 2030. 

As one can expect, the plan has not gone over well in the agricultural community– resulting in a major blow to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s governing coalition. The regional elections in March clearly highlighted the discontent with the BBB or BoerBurgerBeweging (Farmer-Citizen Movement) projected to have won more seats than Rutte’s conservative VVD party, 17 and 10 seats, respectively. The election results seem to reflect a clear rejection from farmers who feel that they are being blamed for the general degradation of the environment rather than being seen as the people who are feeding the nation. 

It’s not just the nitrogen legislation that is proving to be deeply unpopular with the Dutch population. Last week, the Netherlands announced that it will definitely be adopting Nutri-Score as its voluntary nutrition labeling scheme. Nutri-Score is a labeling system developed in France whose algorithm ranks foods from supposedly healthiest to least healthy giving them a letter grade, A to E (A being best and E being worst). In particular, pushback against the decision comes from the fact that many members of the Dutch scientific community find the labeling system to openly contradict the country’s existing food-based dietary guidelines, The Wheel of Five. The Wheel of Five was established to recommend the best combination of health benefits and nutrient provisions based on traditional Dutch food. In its current iteration, the Wheel of Five recommends lots of fruits and vegetables; whole grain products; less meat and more plant-based food; sufficient dairy products; a handful of unsalted nuts; soft or liquid spreadable fats; and enough fluids–recommendations which in some cases diverge from what Nutri-Score’s algorithm would imply. 

Confusing the consumer 

Stephan Peters of the Dutch Dairy Association believes the decision to adopt Nutri-Score is “a big mistake”. Peters makes the point that not only does Nutri-Score contradict the Wheel of Five due to the two schemes being based on different principles, but these different assessments are likely to mean that trying to combine the Nutri-Score label with the Wheel of Five guidelines would confuse the consumer more than it will help. Overall, Nutri-Score has had a difficult time of living up to its promise of simplifying the choices of consumers to help them choose healthier options. 

Due to continuous and mounting criticism about the lack of logic and scientific reasoning behind the algorithm, Nutri-Score is now in its third version. This time around, Nutri-Score 3.0 as it’s being dubbed, now classifies milk, milk-based beverages, fermented milk beverages, and plant-based beverages, in the beverage category after they were previously assessed as foods. The aim of the changes is to better classify milk and milk-based beverages with a high sugar content; following the reform, dairy milk will receive a grade between B-E. Skim milk and semi skimmed milk will have the most favorable B grade while whole milk will receive C rating. 

The fact that sugar sweetened beverages should receive a lower score is neither surprising nor an issue, but milk shouldn’t. When speaking to Politico Pro, Peters explained, “It’s very important that people drink milk, especially for young people as they grow because it provides essential nutrients. It’s a bit crazy the committee chose for (milk) not to have an A score.” Indeed, the only beverage to have an A grade is water. While no one will argue that water should have a different grade, the fact that water is being graded in the first place seems to highlight the inefficacy of the grading system as well as the lack of veritable contribution being made to helping inform consumers.

Nutri-Score failing to impress 

With each iteration, Nutri-Score seems to alienate not just consumers but also countries. In September 2022, the Romanian National Authority for Consumer Protection (ANPC) announced that Nutri-Score would be banned across the country, effective May 1st 2023. The decision resulted from consultation with the Association of Large Retail Chains in Romania, employers’ organizations, and the Romanian Meat Association. With the ban, Romania joins other European countries in rejecting Nutri-Score as a labeling system, citing its lack of transparency, logic, and completeness. This also aligns with the European Commission suggesting that the labeling system is incomplete.  

If and how Nutri-Score will continue to evolve remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen to what extent countries and farmers will continue to accept labeling which seems to go against common sense and is not inoculated to external pressures. What is clear is that thus far, few have been impressed by the quality and reliability of Nutri-Score. 

As Dutch farmers now feel the pressure not only from their government’s plans to reduce nitrogen pollution but also from its decision to implement Nutri-Score, it seems only to be a matter of time until they say enough is enough. With impressive droughts already predicted across Europe this summer and food prices continuing to rise it seems surprising that anyone could think that Nutri-Score is a worthy investment nor a worthwhile project in the current context.   

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