European Commission, Diet and Nutrition

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Before globalisation, the foods people ate were local and seasonal. Due to trade globalisation has not only internationalised foods, it has also internationalised diets. No one is immune from the impact of the immense changes in how food is grown, processed, distributed, marketed and sold around the world. Governments, for example, have become reluctant to intervene in food markets as multinational companies and transnational bodies have become powerful actors in the process. A case can thus be made that globalisation weakens the capacity of governments to act for the good of public health.

The European Commission has been a prominent body in trying to change this and intervene in the globalisation of diet and nutrition within the European Union through their policies. However they have been affected by the process of globalisation and faced obstacles from multinational companies in the food and drink industries. The Commission, whose members are unelected, has come under criticism for allegedly supporting the interests of the food industry rather than consumers - for example, in the area of GM foods (see "GM Food", below) and food additives (see Food Additives, below).

The Role of the European Commission

The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union. The basic role of the Commission is outlined in their mission statement and consists of four main roles:

  1. To propose legislation to Parliament and the Council
  2. To administer and implement Community policies
  3. To enforce Community law (jointly with the Court of Justice)
  4. To negotiate international agreements, mainly those relating to trade and cooperation.


The Commission is independent of national governments. Its job is to represent and uphold the interests of the EU as a whole. It drafts proposals for new European laws, which it presents to the European Parliament and the Council. The appointed Members of the Commission are known as ‘commissioners’. They have all held political positions in their countries of origin and many have been government ministers. The Commission states that: as Members of the Commission they are committed to acting in the interests of the Union as a whole and not taking instructions from national governments.[2] The European Commission is an important mouthpiece for the European Union on the international stage. It enables the member states to speak ‘with one voice’ in international forums such as the World Trade Organisation. The Commission also has the responsibility of negotiating international agreements on behalf of the EU.


The 'seat' of the Commission is in Brussels (Belgium), but it also has offices in Luxembourg, representations in all EU countries and delegations in many capital cities around the world.


The European Union has its 'own resources' to finance its expenditure. Legally, these resources belong to the Union. Member States collect them on behalf of the EU and transfer them to the EU budget.

The Union's own resources consist of:

  1. Traditional own resources (TOR) — these mainly consist of duties that are charged on imports of products coming from a non-EU state. They bring in approximately EUR 17,3 billion or 15 % of the total revenue.
  2. The resource based on value added tax (VAT) is a uniform percentage rate that is applied to each Member State’s harmonised VAT revenue. The VAT-based resource accounts for 15 % of total revenue, or some EUR 17.8 billion.
  3. The resource based on gross national income (GNI) is a uniform percentage rate (0.73 %) applied to the GNI of each Member State. Although it is a balancing item, it has become the largest source of revenue and today accounts for 69 % of total revenue or EUR 80 billion.

The budget also receives other revenue, such as taxes paid by EU staff on their salaries, contributions from non-EU countries to certain EU programmes and fines on companies that breach competition or other laws. These miscellaneous resources add up to around EUR 1.3 billion, i.e. about 1 % of the budget.[3]

European Commission on Health

The Commission’s staff is organised in departments, known as ‘Directorates-General’ (DGs) and ‘services’. DG is responsible for a particular policy area and is headed by a Director-General who is answerable to one of the commissioners. It is the DGs that actually devise and draft legislative proposals, but these proposals become official only when ‘adopted’ by the Commission at its weekly meeting.

The Directorate-General concerned with the issues diet and nutrition in the EU is the Health & Consumer Protection DG, often abbreviated as "SANCO" or "DG-SANCO". The Health & Consumer Protection DG is responsible for the implementation of EU laws on the safety of food and other products, on consumers' rights and on the protection of people's health. [4]

The Health and Consumer Protection DG's mission statement claims

Our job is to help make Europe's citizens healthier, safer and more confident. Over the years the European Union has established EU laws on the safety of food and other products, on consumers' rights and on the protection of people's health.
The Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General has the task of keeping these laws up to date.
It is national, regional or even local governments in EU countries who actually apply the EU's health and consumer protection laws. It is their job to make sure traders, manufacturers and food producers in their country observe the rules. Nonetheless, part of our job is to check that this is really happening and that the rules are being applied properly in all EU countries.[5]

One of the Commission's primary objectives is to ensure the safety of food within the EU. As a result the European Commission has developed an integrated approach to food safety. According to the European Commission's website

The EU integrated approach to food safety aims to assure a high level of food safety, animal health, animal welfare and plant health within the European Union through coherent farm-to-table measures and adequate monitoring, while ensuring the effective functioning of the internal market.

In order to successfully achieve this goal the European commission works with international organisations concerning food saftey. The Commission's statement on international affairs claims that:

The European Union, as a major global trader of food and feed, has entered into international trade agreements and contributed to the development of international standards which underpin food law. It also supports the principles of free trade in safe food and feed following fair and ethical trading practices. This is of enormous importance to citizens in Europe and around the world whether they are politicians, traders or consumers.
  • The following are international organisations that work with the European Commission to ensure food standards:
    • SPS/WTO World Trade Organisation/Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures;
    • CODEX Codex Alimentarius Commission;
    • OIE Office International des Epizooties;
    • IPPC International Plant Protection Convention;
    • TACD Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.


Diet and Nutrition

In Europe today, six out of the seven most important risk factors for premature death (blood pressure, cholesterol, Body Mass Index, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol consumption) relate to how we eat, drink and move (the odd one out being tobacco). A balanced diet and regular physical activity, along with restraining from smoking, are important factors in the promotion and maintenance of good health. Moreover, it is those with lower incomes and education level that are most affected.

The European Commission is aware of the seriousness of this problem. Nutrition, physical activity and obesity are key priorities in the EU public health policy and are taken up by the Public health action programme (2003-2008).[7]

Specifically to tackle the issues of diet and nutrition within the EU the Commission have established two particular policies:

  • Nutrition Policy[8]

The European Commission is committed to the promotion of healthy diets and physical activity as a part of health lifestyles. Commission services have brought together, within the framework of the - Obesity Round Table-, retailers, food processors, the catering industry, the advertising business, consumer and health NGO's, the medical professions and the present and incoming EU presidencies in order to find ways of reversing - or at least halting - the current obesity trends.

  • Diet, Physical Activity and Health - EU Platform for Action

On March 2005, the European Commission launched the Diet, Physical Activity and Health - EU Platform for Action The aim of the Platform is to step up the Obesity Round Table in order to establish a more formal process, and to widen its scope. It will bring together all relevant players active at European level. See Globalisation: EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity & Health

Who is Involved?


  • Markos Kyprianou is the former European Union (EU) Commissioner for Health. He resigned to become the Cypriot foreign affairs minister.
  • The EU's Health Commissioner is Androulla Vassiliou. Included in her duties as health commissioner is the issue of food safety and so she is largely responsible for policy and decisions regarding diet and nutrition.
  • Meglena Kuneva is the European Commissioner for Consumers, her role according to the EU is to protect the welfare of EU consumers and implementing good common rules and policies. [9]


The European Commission perceives relationships with organisations to be particularly important. They state:

Strengthening partnerships with international organisations is a key element in the implementation of the activities under the new public health programme. It is envisaged that co-operation with International partners in the health area will be strengthened further in the coming years.

The European Commission works closely with the following organisations with regards to health policies:

  • WHO- World Health Organisation
  • OECD- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • ESA- European Space Agency

With regards to food safety, the European Commission works closely with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA's website claims"

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is the keystone of European Union (EU) risk assessment regarding food and feed safety. In close collaboration with national authorities and in open consultation with its stakeholders, EFSA provides independent scientific advice and clear communication on existing and emerging risks.[10]

Stakeholders in the EFSA include:

  • Confederation of the Food & Drink Industries in the EU (CIAA)
  • European Modern Restaurant Association (EMRA)
  • EuropaBio - European Assocciation for Bioindustries
  • Friends of the Earth
  • European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC)
  • European Food Information Council (EUFIC)

Policy decisions

According to the consumer food group Foodaware's website:

In May 2007 the European Commission adopted a White Paper on A Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues. The aim of this White Paper is to adopt an integrated EU approach to reduce health issues related to poor nutrition in EU Countries. The White Paper stresses the importance of enabling consumers to make informed choices, ensuring that healthy options are available, and calls upon the food industry to work on reformulating recipes in order to reduce levels of salt and fats. The White Paper also stresses the benefits of physical activity, encouraging Europeans to exercise more.[11]

The European Commission has issued regulation on the health and nutrition claims that companies make regarding their products. A paper published on the Commission's website contains a broad spectrum of over 90 stakeholders' comments on the regulation. Many of the comments made by the stakeholders address problems they have with the regulations.[12]

These stakeholders include many industry and consumer groups, including:

  • ESPA - European Salt Producers' Association
  • Sugar Industry
  • ISA - International Sweeteners Association
  • Danone
  • CIAA - Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU
  • AEC - Association of European Consumers

An article taken from the European Commission's website entitled "You are what you eat - even if you don't know what it is!" gives comprehensive details of a new Commission program to make food labelling clearer. Food labels are critical to consumers as they provide important information regarding the content of our food. Food labelling can be a powerful tool as it has the potential to influence what the general public eat and ultimately help them make more informed and healthy choices. The new proposal states that the minimum print size of 3mm would mean that we need no longer strain to find the information we are looking for. Marketing slogans would no longer be allowed to detract from mandatory information.

Health commissioner Kyprianou explained "Food labels can have a huge influence on consumers' purchasing decisions. Confusing, overloaded or misleading labels can be more of a hindrance than a help to the consumer. Today's proposal aims to ensure that food labels carry the essential information in a clear and legible way, so that EU citizens are empowered to make balanced dietary choices". [13]

At a press conference in November 2006 European Health Commissioner Kyprianou, thanked several CEOs of major food, drink and retail industries for their commitments to tackling obesity made in the framework of the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

The companies 'praised' range from soft drinks companies in UNESDA (Coca Cola) who have committed not to advertise soft drinks to children under 12, to McDonald's for their commitment to provide nutritional information on packaging throughout Europe and retail industries for their commitment to reformulate products or to not to market certain products directly to children unless they meet a certain nutritional profile [14]


Over the years the European Commisssion has been involved at some level in a number of food safety and health controversies.

Food Additives

Food additives are added to food to preserve flavor or improve its taste and appearance. To regulate these additives, and inform consumers, each additive is assigned a unique number. Initially these were the "E numbers" used in Europe for all approved additives. This numbering scheme has now been adopted and extended by the Codex Alimentarius Committee to internationally identify all additives, regardless of whether they are approved for use.

An article printed in the Daily Express in July 2007 entitled, Food Trades Juicy Secrets, exposed the use of a number of harmful additives in our food today. The article noted that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had discovered that a red food dye found in some sausages and beef burgers might cause cancer. Researchers discovered that the dye, known as Red 2G, which is banned in many countries, including the US, Canada and Australia, converts to a substance called aniline once inside the body. The EFSA recommended that food producers stop using the dye. [15] The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is at the core of Europe’s food safety system and works closely with the European Commission. EFSA informed the European Commission of its conclusions on the safety of Red 2G. However as of yet the Commission have made no steps to regulate the use of Aniline.

In May 2007 a study funded by the UK government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) is understood to have drawn a link with temper tantrums and poor concentration.Vyvyan Howard, professor of bio-imaging at Ulster University and an adviser to the FSA, called on parents and manufacturers to protect children.He said: "It is biologically plausible that they could be having an effect. "Parents can protect their children by avoiding foods containing the additives. I personally do not feed these sorts of foods to my 15-month-old daughter." He called on manufacturers and supermarkets to remove the additives on a precautionary basis. [16]

The Food & Drink Federation, which speaks for manufacturers, said the colours and chemicals used by the industry are proven to be safe. "The use of food additives is strictly regulated under European law," it said. "They must be approved as safe by the appropriate European scientific committee before they can be used...Consumers' intake of food additives is also closely monitored. A recent European Commission report on 'Dietary Food Additive Intake' indicated that consumption of all types of additives was within the strict safety limits set by the legislation. Particular attention was given to consumption by children." The FSA and Southampton University refused to comment until the research has been officially published.

In 2003 several environmental NGOs and trade unions have expressed their disappointment with EU’s failure to ban the dangerous pesticide paraquat. The EU failed late on Friday 3 October to ban Paraquat. The EU Commission’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health did not exclude paraquat from the list of active substances authorised at EU level.[17]

Workers and farmers around the world who are regularly exposed to the Paraquat pesticide experience serious problems with their health. Its high toxicity and lack of antidote can lead to serious ill-health, and even death. Studies also indicate that paraquat has adverse effects on hares and birds, and may accumulate in soil.

However many members of the EU were opposed to the use of this harmful chemical. Sweden, supported by Denmark, Austria, and Finland, brought the European Commission to court. On 11 July 2007 the court annulled the directive authorising Paraquat as an active plant protection substance.[18]

GM Food

The food and feed which contain or consist of GMOs genetically modified organisms, or are produced from GMOs, are called genetically modified (GM) food or feed. Consumer rights groups, such as the Organic Consumers Association, and Greenpeace emphasize the long term health risks which GM could pose, or that the risks of GM have not yet been adequately investigated. GMO food been an area of controversy and debate within the members of the European.

The unstable political situation surrounding GM crops in Europe is putting up barriers as EU member states struggle to agree on a biotech policy.

Austria enforced a ban on the import and processing of Monsanto's MON810 and Bayer's T25 maize in June 1999. The Commission has been debating whether to force the country to lift its restrictions since 2005, as Austria has never produced the necessary scientific evidence to contest the positive assessment of the products by Europe's food safety authorities. In January this year, France complicated the matter when it chose to extend its temporary ban on the cultivation of MON810, applying the same EU measure by arguing the costs to health posed by GM crops.[19]

In February 2008, the European Commission introduced emergency measures to prevent rice products contaminated with unauthorised GM material from China entering the EU food supply, as efforts to curtail the problem in the country of origin prove ineffectual. Rice contaminated with the GMO Bt63 - which is not authorised either in the EU or in China - was identified in rice products imported from China and on sale in EU member states in September 2006.

The European Commission stated that “China is responsible for ensuring that Bt63 does not enter the EU food chain, and that imports are certified as free from this GMO. Authorities in member states are responsible for controlling imports at their borders, and preventing contaminated consignments appearing on the market.” The Commission appeared to be passing the burden, saying that “Member states should conduct controls on products already on the market to ensure they are Bt63-free and that under EU food law, business operators are responsible for the safety of food or feed they put on the market.”[20]


The artificial sweetener aspartame has been the subject of a vigorous public controversy regarding its safety and the circumstances around its approval. A few studies have recommended further investigation into the possible connection between aspartame and diseases such as brain tumors, brain lesions, and lymphoma.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked by the European Commission to assess the carcinogenicity study performed by the European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences (ERF) on the artificial sweetener aspartame, which was reported in publications in 2005 and 2006.[21] According to the Food Standards Agency

Aspartame is an intense sweetener, approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, which has been used in soft drinks and other low-calorie or sugar-free foods throughout the world for more than 25 years.[22]

They concluded from their study that the use of aspartame was safe for the European Commission and should continue to be used. Despite much debate aspartame remains on the food market today.

Publications, Contact, Resources and Notes






  1. European Commission Website Food Safety From the Fram to the Fork Last accessed 3/3/08
  2. European Commission Website European Union insistiutions and other bodies Last accessed 4/3/08
  3. Europa Website Budget & Financing Last accessed 11/3/08
  4. European Commission Website Health and Consumer Protection DirectorateLast accessed 5/3/08
  5. European Commission Website Health and Consumer Protection DirectorateLast accessed 5/3/08
  6. European Commission Website International Affairs -Organisations
  7. Europa Website Public Health Last accessed 5/3/08
  8. European Commission WebsiteNutrition PolicyLast accessed 6/3/08
  9. European Commission Members Meglena Kuneva Last Accessed 21/3/08
  10. EFSA Website Who we are Last accessed 21/3/08
  11. Foodaware Website White Paper on a Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues Last accessed 5/2/08
  12. European Food Safety Health & Nutrition ClaimsLast accessed 20/3/08
  13. Europa Website Food labelling Last accessed 26/2/08
  14. EurActiv Website Kyprianou: 'Industry can not only be criticised' Last accessed 26/2/08
  15. Daily Express Health Food Traders Juicy Secrets Last accessed 9/3/08
  16. Daily Express Health The proof food additives ARE as bad as we feared Last accessed 10/3/08
  17. European Public Health Alliance EU fails to ban dangerous pesticide Last accessed 10/3/08
  18. Press Release Sweeden vs EU Last accessed 10/3/08
  19. Food Navigator Europe stalls again on ending GM retrictions Last accessed 11/3/08
  20. Food NavigatorCommission takes emergency measures on GM rice imports Last accessed 11/3/08
  21. European Food Safety AuthorityAspartame Opinions Last accessed 10/3/08
  22. Food Standards Agency Safety Evaluation Last accessed 11/3/08