New Study: EU could slash 48 million tonnes of emissions and save €2.8 billion annually with healthier ready meals

17 abril 2024

A new study reveals that the European Union could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by around 48 million tonnes annually—equivalent to removing up to 38 million new cars from the road [1]—by aligning ready-made meals with established health and sustainability standards.

The study, conducted by system change company Systemiq for 10 consumer, and environmental organisations, also found that making ready meals healthier and more sustainable could save EU consumers €2.8 billion [2] every year by delivering cheaper and healthier food.

Backed by a group of health, consumer, and environmental organisations, the study shows that these improved meals would actually reduce ingredient costs, allowing supermarkets and restaurants to offer nutritious meal options at affordable prices. As a result, this study calls for large European supermarkets, catering companies, and restaurant chains to adopt these standards. 

Eduardo Montero Mansilla of the Spanish Consumers and Users' Federation CECU said: “Making ready-made meals healthier and more sustainable is a no-regret policy. Healthier and more sustainable choices don’t have to cost the earth, quite the opposite in this case. As the popularity of ready-made meals soars, this timely finding shows a win-win-win solution, where we can improve the health of people and the planet at affordable prices. This becomes even more crucial as Europe navigates a cost of living crisis.” 

In addition to a healthier environment and fuller wallets, the study also found that improving the health and sustainability of pre-prepared foods could help reduce the EU’s major diet-linked diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and stroke), liver disease and diabetes. 

Alba Gil, policy manager of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said: “We are currently living in a diet-related illnesses crisis. Our dietary habits shape our health, and therefore our future. It only makes sense that policymakers regulate the environments where we consume food to make it healthy and affordable by design. Legislation on ready-made meals is extremely powerful because it shows benefits on improving our health, caring about the planet, and potentially advancing equity for vulnerable populations, since they are often the target of unhealthy foods.” 

Ready-made meals constitute one-sixth (17%) of the EU’s total calorie intake. This is also part of an upward trend; over the past 15 years, people in Italy, Germany and Spain have been eating between 40% and 60% more ready meals, underscoring the urgent need for regulatory action to avert impending health crises. 

These meals contribute substantially to European societies’ health and environmental challenges. Laden with excessive salt, sugars, fats, animal proteins, and calories, they significantly exceed the healthy levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the EAT-Lancet Commission

Ready-made meals typically contain three times more salt than is recommended by WHO Guidelines. Likewise, pre-prepared meals have twice as much red meat as the average European meal, and more than four times more red meat than is recommended by the ‘planetary health diet’ developed by scientists and nutritionists at EAT-Lancet. 

On average, EU citizens overconsume salt, sugar, fat, animal proteins (beef, pork, eggs, dairy, and poultry in particular) and calories; and under-consume vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. About one million deaths every year are attributable to unhealthy diets in the EU. 

Importantly, big corporations control the distribution of ready-made meals, accounting for 78% of sales in the retail sector and 48% in the food service/catering sector, so changes can be mandated without harming small and medium-sized enterprises.

These compelling findings underline the urgency for the European Commission to impose minimum sustainability and health requirements on restaurant chains and large food retailers for the ready-made meals they sell. Against the backdrop of farmers’ protests and cost of living increases, this approach makes more sense than ever: it places responsibility for addressing environmental and public health problems on large corporations, rather than farmers or consumers,” said Julia Christian, Forests and Agriculture campaigner at forests and rights NGO, Fern

According to a 2023 poll, three in four Europeans think that big companies should ensure that the food they sell is sustainably produced.  

The full list of civil society organisations that support this call to action are: the Spanish Consumers and Users’ Federation (Federación de Consumidores y Usuarios – CECU); the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA); Fern; the German Alliance on Climate Change and Health (KLUG); Italy’s Consumer Defense Association (Associazione Italiana Difesa Consumatori - Adiconsum); Madre Brava; Physicians’ Association for Nutrition; the Portuguese Association for Consumer Protection (DECO), BirdLife Europe & Asia and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). 

Notes to the Editor: 

[1] In 2022, average emissions from new passenger cars registered in the EU were 108.2 grammes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometre. The average mileage of a gasoline car in Western Europe is 11,500 kilometres per year. This means that the average new car in 2022 emitted around 1.244 tonnes of CO2 yearly. 50 million tonnes of CO2 is therefore equivalent to annual average emissions from 38 million new cars in the EU. As a way of comparison, there are 33.27 million cars in the UK. 

[2] The study found that the policy would reduce ingredient costs significantly - when applied to either the WHO or the Eat-Lancet guidelines - as it would increase the content of legumes and vegetables, which are generally cheaper, and decrease the content of meat, which tends to be more expensive.  

Categorias: Press Releases, Meat consumption

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