Upcoming (r)evolution in school shops – what can food producers offer children in Polish schools? | In Principle

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Upcoming (r)evolution in school shops – what can food producers offer children in Polish schools?

After more than two years of discussions, the Food Safety and Nutrition Amendment Act concerning children’s nutrition at schools was enacted on 28 November 2014. The new law, which comes into force on 1 September 2015, aims to eliminate unhealthy food from school shops and prohibit the promotion of unhealthy foods within educational institutions.

New rules starting 1 September 2015

According to the amended Act, only foods in certain approved product groups that fulfill particular nutritional criteria could be sold and consumed in educational institutions (including schools and pre-schools). The sale or serving of products not found on the approved list and which do not fulfil specified criteria is forbidden, as is their advertisement or promotion in schools.

The prohibition on selling, serving, and advertising is limited to the premises of the educational institutions and does not extend to the surrounding areas, nor to content that pupils read on school premises on mobile phones, tablets or computers. It is likely that school administrators, teachers, and parents’ associations will attempt to restrict access to specific internet content, but this issue is not addressed in the newly adopted regulations.

In the event that prohibited products are sold on school premises, the director of the institution will have the authority to terminate contracts with the parties responsible for the violation (e.g., the tenant of a school shop, or catering company that provides meals) with immediate effect. In turn, sanitary inspection authorities will be entitled to impose a penalty on the party violating the prohibition of up to thirty times the average monthly salary in Poland in the year preceding the year of fine imposition, in other words, up to PLN 80,000 (about €20,000).

Positive standards versus blacklists

The ambitious plan to draw up a list of product groups permitted for sale in schools and minimum standards for each product replaced an earlier plan to list only banned products. The proposal of a negative list, which for example would have banned the sale of items containing more than 10g of sugar per 100g of product, was criticised on the grounds that it would stigmatise certain product categories and excessively restrict business.

Yet the positive description of food groups approved for sale in schools and quality criteria may be equally susceptible to criticism. It may be the case that the regulation is worded differently but its effect on food producers remains the same. Moreover, the approval of only closed product categories carries the risk that certain foods could be completely omitted, resulting in their treatment as banned products at schools. Products that do not fit into traditional categories, such as vegetable-flavoured yogurts and fruit-flavoured spreadable cheese, may be unintentionally banned outright.

Clearly, creating a list of allowed food products for schools will affect many food companies, particularly smaller manufacturers for whom in-school sales can determine whether the company survives on a local market. The process could also result in the escalation of lobbying from industry associations representing manufacturers of dairy, meat, or chocolate products. Insofar as these actions will be taken in the context of the procedures laid down by law, they can lead to the enactment of good laws.

In the past it has become clear that industry participation at the social consultation stage of the draft regulation is often necessary to avoid legislative shortcomings. Recently, the Minister of Finance adopted a positive list of meal ingredients for publicly-funded diners that failed to include water. He was forced to issue a subsequent ruling indicating that the subsidized meals may also contain water.

Perspectives for the future

Two important issues will be addressed in the forthcoming Ministry of Health regulation:

  • categories of food products that can be sold in schools, and
  • requirements which food products within those categories must fulfil.

In delineating the groups of products and equivalent nutritional requirements, legistlators will consider nutritional standards for children and young people.

Work on the regulation has not yet officially begun, so neither the draft nor the assumptions behind it are available for public consultation. It is expected that Warsaw’s Institute of Food and Nutrition (the leading scientific and research institution on healthy nutrition) will be involved in work on the regulation.

Food manufacturers are not waiting passively for the legislation to develop. Fully aware of reports on the child obesity epidemic and of their own key role in shaping youth diets, the food manufacturers are conducting intensive research on new products with reduced levels of salt, sugar, and fat. They are also educating young consumers on how to benefit from their products in a sustainable manner. Building a positive image on the market as socially-responsible producers, they invest in the future of their companies by educating consumers to make conscientious food choices.

It appears that the newly adopted amendment can only reach its objectives with a combination of balanced legislative action, nutritional education for children and parents, and effective prevention of diet-related diseases. Time will tell whether actions taken today will lead to long-term positive results, and whether lawmakers will take into account the key role of food manufacturers, treating them as partners rather than merely subjects to be regulated.

Joanna Krakowiak, Life Science and Regulatory Practice, Wardyński & Partners

The article was first published in Food News – Legal and Regulatory News, March 2015