MEP Carl Schlyter, member of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) is shadow rapporteur on the food labelling dossier for the Greens. In this interview with Corporate Europe Observatory, he reflects on one of the biggest lobbying battles in Brussels in recent years on food labelling regulation. CEO has today launched a new report on this topic. Consumer groups demand ‘traffic-light’ labels for food packaging, which have a clear green symbol for healthy options and a red symbol for sugary, fatty and salty foods. The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) — on the other hand — wants the nutritional information on the packaging to be limited to single-coloured guideline daily amounts (GDAs) — which do not give an explicit, at-a-glance warning that a product is high in fat or sugar.
What was the role of industry lobbying on the food labelling dossier?
On numerous occasions during the meetings of the shadow rapporteurs of the ENVI committee, colleagues have flashed position papers from industry where they want us to consider special exemptions for gift-wrapping, for different manufacturers of different products. The arguments given to us by industry were constantly repeated both in internal negotiation meetings but also in the ENVI committee discussions. It really had a big impact on the decisions. For example, a special exemption for gift-wrapping was not an issue at all until we got a lobby letter from the food industry and suddenly it was an issue. Same thing with tax-free goods: manufacturers have been exempted from using the language of the place where goods are sold. These measures have been adopted by the ENVI committee under industry pressure.
Do you think all these measures will be confirmed in the June plenary?
Yes. When people want to change a position from the ENVI vote, they focus on the biggest issues. These are not examples of the biggest issues. The biggest issue is why MEPs are so much against any kind of warning labels from high fat, high salt, high sugar. For instance, a traffic-light system or any system warning consumers that a product has an unusually high level of sugar, salt or unhealthy ingredients was almost all voted down. And that was because of industry pressure, because in the earlier discussions MEPs were much more open-minded. But they have been exposed to so much industry pressure that it shifted focus.
In March, the so-called ‘traffic-light’ labelling system was rejected by the ENVI committee by 32 to 30 votes. Do you think it has a chance to pass in the plenary?
No, I think it would change to the worst direction, because the ENVI Committee is normally more progressive than the plenary. There are some MEPs who are not in the ENVI committee who have links with industry and industry tells them that this or that is bad, and they break the group’s lines to follow industry. So I’m not very optimistic.
How many e-mails do you receive daily on this issue?
I don’t know. But on average, every week I receive around 230 lobby e-mails, mainly from industry. As I am shadow rapporteur on the food labelling dossier, industry lobbyists have been always following me and trying to influence me.
What is exactly a shadow rapporteur and why are they targeted by lobbyists?
Every time a dossier is to be voted there is a rapporteur who writes the proposals — in this case it is Madame Sommer. This person has a huge influence on the dossier because he or she takes the Commission proposal and then he or she makes a lot of suggestions on what to change, and then all other parliamentarians react to the rapporteur’s changes to the Commission proposal. So it means the direction the rapporteur is taking has a huge impact on how people think about the dossier. And then each political group appoints one person who is following the issue for that group. And those are called ‘shadow rapporteurs’ and they are also very important because when the dossier is negotiated with the Council, after the vote in the European Parliament, shadow rapporteurs are the people involved in the negotiating process. And before the vote, if compromises are to be made, these are the people doing the compromises. So shadow rapporteurs are the ones mainly influencing the whole dossier. So they are the most important people to influence if you want to change parliament’s positions.
What is the ratio between industry lobbyists and public interest groups on the food labelling dossier?
In general it’s about 84% industry and 16% public interest. But on the food labelling issue I would say 90-95% industry and the rest is consumers. In the 90-95%, many of the exemptions and special rules in the food labelling dossier concern small or micro enterprises. However if you check the lobbyists and where they come from, it’s mainly large corporations. The most active interest groups on the lobbying front were associations of retailers, of producers of processed products such as cereals, chewing gums, ready-meals, and soft-drinks manufacturers of course. But some companies like Coca-Cola came with their in-house lobbyists. Most retail chains have their own labelling system already in place, and most have told us how excellent they are.
You’ve been shadow rapporteur 45 times during your last mandate. Is the lobbying on the food labelling dossier particularly intense?
It’s an important and big dossier and therefore there was a lot of lobbying. For instance I was shadow for REACH and then it was the same amount of lobbyists as for REACH, maybe even actually more on REACH. But this would qualify among the top-three of all the dossiers I’ve been responsible for.
What’s the problem with this lobbying?
The problem with lobbying is that it sets people’s mindsets to solve problem that are industry-related and not consumer-related, whereas the whole package is regarding food information to consumers. If you want to find an alternative position to industry’s position then you must yourself dig out the facts. So that means that in order to get a balanced picture you must put time and effort in it. I can say one thing about how I deal with lobbyists: every time I meet a lobbyist, I try to find somebody representing a different viewpoint, to counterbalance. But if I want to counterbalance industry’s interests I need to find these people myself. I need to turn to research institutions sometimes. One of my demands is that every time a lobbyists sends me a letter or contacts me to influence the legislative process, then he would have to send a copy to a public register where everybody could search and look for who influences decisions. Because then you could see the origins of proposals. We paid a researcher three months to study the chemical legislation REACH and F-gases — the legislation on other climate gases than carbon dioxide — and we asked her to check what was the origin of amendments tabled by different groups. On the F-gases dossier, between 96% and 100% of all amendments — when you can trace the origin of the amendments from the three biggest political groups — were all from lobbyists. On REACH, it was between 50% and 75%. So this shows the enormous impact of lobbying. This is a real democratic problem because there is such an imbalance in the power of influence. If we increase transparency, then we would have a better chance to deal with this democratic problem.
“A red light for consumer information – The food industry’s €1-billion campaign to block health warnings on food”, the new report by Corporate Europe Observatory is available here.