Amid Price Inflation, Europe is Facing a Food Quality Conundrum

Amid Price Inflation, Europe is Facing a Food Quality Conundrum

Food inflation in Europe has wreaked havoc on consumer behavior, forcing many to tighten their belts while paying more for less. In countries like Hungary, where food prices have almost doubled since 2020, the impact is particularly pronounced.

Consumers find themselves in a financial bind, navigating skyrocketing costs with growing anxiety and frustration. At checkout counters, tensions run high, and it’s not uncommon to hear the occasional expletive.

This reaction is not surprising, given that Hungary has the highest food inflation in Europe, with prices nearly doubling since 2020.

The increase in the price of food and drink products has forced consumers to distinguish sharply between essentials and luxuries.

Staple foods such as bread, milk, pasta, and cereal are viewed with heightened sensitivity to price changes compared to luxury items like chocolate and wine.

As is always the best indicator of a crisis, consumers, faced with ballooning costs, prioritise necessity over indulgence, deliberately avoiding high-priced luxury goods to make room for essentials in their budgets.

Nutri-Score at the heart of the price-quality debate

In this context, value for money has become a critical factor in purchasing decisions. Grocery shoppers are no longer just looking for low prices but are increasingly scrutinizing the quality and worth of every purchase.

In fact, quality is one aspect that consumers have become unwilling to compromise on, even if the price is higher. No matter how much a product costs, shoppers will not purchase or repurchase it if it is associated with poor quality or generally lower value for the money spent.

Ironically, some of the Front-of-Pack (FOP) labels in circulation in Europe might be exacerbating these consumer concerns and perceptions of the price to quality ratio.

A case in point is Nutri-Score, which was adopted voluntarily by some food producers in the EU and Switzerland, although it has faced criticism from the scientific community for frequently endorsing unhealthy or low-quality foods while awarding ‘natural’ foods like olive oil low scores.

At a time when consumers are unwilling to compromise on quality despite rising prices, Nutri-Score’s controversial ratings can be counterproductive.

Recent research highlights that “better taste,” “local production,” and “cleaner ingredients” are top factors influencing consumer perceptions of quality. It’s evident that a labeling system that fails to align with these priorities risks alienating its audience.

Some food companies have now begun to reconsider their embrace of Nutri-Score. For example in Switzerland, Nutri-Score’s reception has been tepid at best.

Major food producers like Migros have abandoned the label, citing high implementation costs and consumer confusion regarding the information it provides in terms of nutritional value.

“Three years after its introduction, Nutri-Score is still little known and often raises a lot of questions. Integrating or adapting the Nutri-Score requires a lot of packaging effort,” a Migros spokesperson explained.

This decision underscores a broader skepticism about the label’s utility and effectiveness among consumers, and firms are taking notice.

Don’t mess with people’s daily bread

However, none of these issues are particularly new. A 2020 European Parliament briefing report highlighted some of the risks that may arise from Nutri-Score, with reduced quality and nutritional value two among them.

The report warned that Nutri-Score could incentivise companies to reformulate products to meet specific criteria and obtain a higher Nutri-Score, sometimes at the expense of overall nutritional value.

While this issue was dismissed by Nutri-Score’s defenders as overblown at the time, the fact that consumers have become much more discerning and quality-conscious amidst inflationary pressures means that reality has caught up fast.

Yet the broader skepticism about the effectiveness and practicality of the Nutri-Score system is merely a symptom of a wider sense of insecurity permeating European societies. Little surprise then that inflation and rising food prices will likely play a major role in the upcoming European elections.

The economic strain on households is not just a matter of higher prices but a fundamental issue of maintaining quality of life.

History shows that trouble is on the horizon when people’s daily bread is a burden on household budgets. Even if inflation has dropped since March this year, the current international environment does not encourage optimism that inflation will not make a vengeful return in the near future.

The European Central Bank and national governments are exploring various strategies to combat inflation, from monetary policy adjustments to subsidies and price controls. However, the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen.

Europe’s food inflation crisis is reshaping consumer behavior in profound ways. As people grapple with higher prices, their emphasis on value for money and quality intensifies.

Nutri-Score and similar initiatives, while well-intentioned, must evolve to reflect these consumer priorities accurately. As policymakers prepare for upcoming elections, they must recognize the urgency of controlling food inflation and safeguarding the quality of food. Only then can we hope to restore a sense of balance and trust in our food systems.

Image credit: Photo by Sara Kurfeß via Unsplash

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