The French government has created a new body designed to oversee the quality of its food, and to monitor changes in food quality.
The Observatoire de la Qualité de l'Alimentation (OQALI) will initially focus on issues such as nutritional composition and portion size. It will also monitor prices and other factors such as market segmentation.
Food manufacturers will be requested to cooperate with the new body to provide information on their products, as required.
The creation of the OQALI was envisaged in the Programme National Nutrition Santé (PNNS) 2006 - 2010 the second phase of a long-term initiative to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity and disease. The programme includes campaigns to raise public awareness of nutritional foods. It also aims to encourage consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce the consumption of sugary, fatty and salty foods.
The OQALI will be used in part to measure the progress of voluntary agreements made between the government and food companies to improve the quality of their products. These agreements - chartes d"engagements de progrès nutritionnel - also form part of the PNNS.
The Ministry of Agriculture announced that the first such agreement was signed this month with dairy spreads firm Saint Hubert (part of the Dairy Crest group). It said that the company agrees among other things, to reduce within two years the use of lipids by 5 to 10 per cent for more than two thirds of production, in particular it intends to reduce saturated fatty acids by 3 - 5 per cent.
The OQALI is being set up after a feasibility study was demanded by the government.
Three food manufacturing sectors were considered: biscuit production, breakfast cereals and charcuterie. Study of these sectors provided an understanding of how best to obtain the data required.
OQALI will determine nutritional quality in three ways, through the labelling, through information provided by the companies and through analyses of nutritional composition.
OQALI will put together a database on the nutritional and commercial characteristics of food products, manage the updating of this information, liaise with companies or their representatives as necessary to complete this task, analyse products as necessary, ensure other relevant statistics are taken into account and develop indicators to follow the evolution of nutritional characteristics by market sector (situating brands and specific product types in the relevant sector).
The setting up of the OQALI will be the responsibility of the Institut National de la Research Agronomique, INRA (the national institute of agronomical research) and the Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments, AFSSA (French agency for food safety), in collaboration with professionals in the food industry.
The initiative is expected to reinforce the partnership-based approach developed by the government to encourage players in the food industry to work towards public health objectives and consumer expectations.