A COUPLE OF croissants, a wedge of cheese and a bottle of wine. That's the usual food shopping list for Americans visiting supermarkets or grocery stores in Europe.
But it wasn't so much the food as the labeling upon it that interested members of a recent tour group. The tourists -- sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based organization designed to promote transatlantic cooperation -- visited supermarkets in four European countries. They found that food shopping across the Atlantic differs greatly from the American experience -- easier, more informative and less confusing.
The group focused on food information in supermarkets, primarily nutrition labeling. It found Holland and Denmark using and promoting innovative nutrition labeling, France experimenting with different concepts, and Germany at a standstill.
It is far easier to find and identify nutritious products in Dutch and Danish supermarkets than it is here. The nutrition labels are easier to read and understand, and they appear on more than 90 percent of all food products -- from bags of vegetables and cartons of milk to packages of candy -- in the major supermarkets. In the U.S., less than half of the products in a typical supermarket bear nutrition labels.
France, which preceded the U.S. in formulating nutrition labeling regulations and subsequent experimentation, has since shelved its labeling promotion, at least temporarily. There is, however, a current labeling program that focuses on product quality.
And Germany is doing little, despite a nutrition labeling law that resembles that of the United States. Some German supermarket representatives believe that the law inhibits experimentation with nutrition labeling.
In Holland and Denmark, national policies and cultural characteristics have combined to produce creative efforts that emphasize simplicity in nutrition labeling. Creative graphics present clear, easy ways for consumers to discover the most important information about food content. Generally this means identifying the "macronutrients," such as fat, sugar and salt, along with calories.
* A new Dutch nutrition labeling format, soon to be required by law, is a bold box divided into three vertical segments to show major nutrients. A row of small, shaded circles or dots displays vitamin and mineral content.
* Food packages at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn display a prominent circle shaded to indicate the item's percentage of major nutrients. The more nutritious the product, the more top-heavy the circle.
* In Danish co-op stores, a ubiquitious "eye," the national labeling institute's logo, denotes the institute's nutrition label. The label itself is a horizontal box with clear segments for the macronutrients and small symbols for "open," "close" and other instructions.
* The Danish chain Irma features a prominent octagon on its boxy nutrition label. The octagon presents one or two major nutritional facts about the food product, such as "low fat" or "no coloring."
Because Europe is multilingual, food packages often require graphic messages rather than written ones. But the innovative use of geometric labels also reflects the fact that northern Europeans want clear information about their food.
Like Denmark, France has had a national labeling institute whose logo has appeared on the products that followed the institute's nutrition labeling guidelines. And like Denmark and Holland, the French institute's guidelines focused on clear and simple display of a food product's macronutrients.
The new government, however, wants consumers and the French food industry to become more involved in its national labeling program, so the institute's approach has been suspended.
Meanwhile, French consumers, government and industry have been enthusiastic about France's "Label Rouge," a quality label conferred on meat, poultry and cheese products that meet strict national standards on production, inspection and, not surprisingly in this gastronomic country, taste. Especially popular is the "Poulet Label Rouge;" a chicken bearing the red ribbon seal of the quality labeling program.
Relatively recent action on food labeling policy by the European Economic Community has helped solidify a more uniform European approach to food labeling. The EEC directive, which must become law in all member countries by 1983, requires food information to be displayed on all food products. While the EEC directive was enacted essentially to remove any trade barriers imposed by the lack of uniform labeling within the European community, it represents the first major piece of consumer legislation to be passed by the EEC. Consumers, food industry and government representatives alike view the directive as a first step toward a European-wide nutrition labeling directive.
Europe's progress in the labeling area is a result of the combined work of all affected interests--consumer organizations, supermarkets, the food industry and government. While some nutrition labeling legislation exists, primarily in Denmark and Germany, the public interest in nutrition labeling--promoted by consumer groups and progressive supermarkets--probably has been an equally important force in labeling development.
This situation differs from that in the United States, where the 1973 voluntary nutrition labeling regulations became the basis of industry efforts here. In recent years, some innovative American chains such as Washington's Giant and New England's Stop and Shop also have begun providing consumers with in-store nutrition information, primarily on specific substances such as salt.
While the Food and Drug Administration has made some progress in building consumer advisory mechanisms, Europe is ahead in this area as well. The countries the study group visited have gone so far as to require consumer suggestions for agencies considering food and nutrition policy. This consensus approach automatically includes all points of view. Also, Holland, Denmark, Germany and France have strong national consumer organizations that often receive government funding for their general activities.
Many American consumer advocates like the European approach to food labeling that emphasizes macronutrients. The label currently used here is a long and confusing list of nutrients, calories, vitamins and minerals that indicates no sense of priority as to key nutrients. It is difficult for a consumer using this label to sort out the nutritional content of the product and understand what that content means.
American consumers increasingly share the Europeans' concern with diet and health, and consumer groups here have long recognized the food label's critical role in transmitting nutrition information that relates product content to health. We would do well to take a strong look at the creative techniques used in Europe.