European Union institutions are known worldwide for a certain lack of accountability and inconsistent policymaking processes that are undertaken more on the sly than in a democratic matter. Alternatively, if a genuinely democratic decision has been made, it’s all too often ignored.
Just as Americans often take issue with “the swamp” on Capitol Hill, so Europeans are regularly frustrated by “Eurocrats”—that is, EU bureaucrats. In distant and undemocratic bureaucracies, Eurocrats often make decisions with major repercussions for the Europeans without their input.
Occasionally, however, bad ideas are stopped in their tracks.
Recently, the European Commission abandoned a proposal to introduce a Europewide “Nutri-Score,” a labeling system to measure nutrition for consumers, thanks to opposition from the Italian government.
Olive oil, for example, does not get top marks from a nutritional labeling system, even though Italians are healthier than average Europeans. The Swiss complained that their natural, high-fat cheeses ranked lower than processed cheeses.
‘Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs’
Abandoning Nutri-Score has resulted in an uproar from the European Consumer Organization, an umbrella organization of 45 so-called consumer protection agencies from across the Continent. The response from BEUC, as it’s known by its French acronym, has been ferocious, accusing anyone who doesn’t share its opinion of falsely influencing the processes of the European Commission (with little proof to back up its claims, including not offering any arguments of which scientists or experts actually support Nutri-Scores).
The Nutri-Score system was designed to assist the average consumer in making healthier choices. It sought to classify foods based on some ingredients, giving positive and negative ratings, depending on whether that ingredient is considered problematic or healthy.
That’s where the first problem arises: Interactions between ingredients are ignored. There are some instances where multiple ingredients that are seen as problematic individually lead to beneficial health outcomes in combination. Such cases cannot easily be considered in a system like Nutri-Score. As a consequence, it inadvertently can mislead consumers instead of helping them.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Additionally, such a one-size-fits-all system cannot consider individual circumstances. Healthy nutrition depends on individual factors, such as age, lifestyle, and genetic predispositions, as well as food portion size. Consider somebody who is underweight because he engages in endurance sports and has a decreased appetite. Is he necessarily eating less healthily because he relies on energy-dense foods? Yes, according to Nutri-Score. As such, it could lead to some people making less healthy food choices than before.
Making matters worse, relying on the scoring system could lead to a decline in responsible consumption behavior as the responsibility for decision-making shifts from the informed consumer to the scoring system.
Such behavior could also set a precedent for similar conduct in other areas of life, leading to an increasingly paternalistic society. After all, responsibility is not limited to choosing, but also about informing oneself. Implying that people can base their decisions only on some “perfect knowledge” provided by some central institution is not just absurd on its face, but could lead to irresponsible behavior down the road.
Last but not least, the bureaucracy needed to administer a system like Nutri-Score is significant, and that’s costly both for taxpayers and consumers. In essence, consumers would be forced to finance a dysfunctional system that gives them misleading information.
Bureaucracy vs. Consumer Choice
As with almost every other bureaucracy, the Nutri-Score bureaucracy would likely grow bigger over time. And, since it would wield tremendous power, it would be a main target for lobbying. Businesses would try to make sure that Nutri-Score operates in their favor, strengthening already strong connections between government and industry.
That’s detrimental because businesses can make more money by doing what governments want them to do. When preferences of government and consumers conflict, EU consumers generally lose.
That resembles a planned economy, not a free market economy, and it would suffer from the same defects as every planned economy. A functioning economy relies on free consumer choice, without the consumers being influenced or “nudged” by the government.
The BECU’s reaction to Italy’s opposition is not just a case of an organization that thinks it will always succeed in constraining true consumer choice and freedom but is suddenly caught off guard by one of the proposals failing. It also reveals a certain disdain for engaging in open discourse, considering diverse perspectives, and fostering critical thinking, which are foundational principles in any liberal democracy and open society.
The attitude is akin to a Marxist view of the world, in which they—the protector of the poor—are always the “oppressed,” and evil capitalists, or anyone diverging from BEUC views, are the “oppressors.”
BEUC’s mission is to express the interests of various consumers, and one would expect it to respect and value diversity of opinion. After all, diversity is said to be one of the main pillars of the European Union.
Ideas are discussed, criticized, reworked, and then maybe legislated. That’s how knowledge is developed and spread. But BECU’s attitude mirrors the broader polarization issues affecting Europe and contributes to the rise of populist political movements. By being unwilling to listen to any opposing views, but merely seeing those who hold them as deplorable, one alienates people with other opinions.
Fighting against malnutrition, overeating, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases spawned by modifiable habits, such as tobacco use and physical inactivity, are worthy efforts that are already being moved forward by entrepreneurs and private companies.
The demise of Nutri-Score, a rare success for consumer choice on the European level, shows that the left-wing elites in Brussels are, unsurprisingly, shocked when their views for once don’t prevail. When they don’t, a smear campaign immediately follows. So much for the purported viewpoint diversity of the Europeans.
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