In order to face major public health concerns related to the consumption of industrial food, Stéphane leverages the power of citizens to operate a mindset shift in the food industry, urging food manufacturers to improve the general quality of their offer by including a nutritional orientation in a market which is normally driven by price competition.
The New Idea
Understanding that the low quality of industrial food and its consequences on public health were due to the fact that the agri-food market was only driven by competition regarding price and nothing else, Stéphane is setting-up a new paradigm, enlarging the agri-food industry’s focus on price to a more nutritional orientation. To do so, he leverages the power of citizens to urge the whole industry to change its habits by leading a global movement for data-on-products liberation. Through the gathering of a worldwide community of consumers determined to act at their level, he is making food transparency a new norm in the industry, thus automatically compelling an upgrade in the quality of the offer. Every day, citizens fuel Open Food Facts, the first freely reusable global open database on food products, sort of Wikipedia on food. Stéphane relies on a strong community of 20.000 contributors, who volunteer their time to enter the details indicated on the products, which are then processed and translated in understandable way, through simple scoring systems. Information on already more than 600.000 products from 10 countries around the world is entered, allowing many stakeholders to use this formerly inaccessible data, be it nutritional apps (Yuka, Foodvisor, Howmuchsugar.in, Open Food Facts app itself etc.), scientific researchers working on consequences of industrial food consumption on health, or food manufacturers themselves, using it as a strong benchmarking tool for them to compare their products to their competitors’.
Stéphane initiated Open Food Facts in 2012 in France, and within a couple of years, it has significantly helped develop a culture of transparency since food manufacturers have had almost no choice but to change their practices, consumers being more aware of the issue and demanding change. However, making the data available for those already looking for it is not enough for Stéphane who wants all consumers to have access to it beyond the already concerned consumers using nutritional apps. Therefore, he works closely with public agencies (health & environment) to help them develop and above all promote nutritional and environmental indicators that can be directly displayed on the packaging, which automatically lead the agri-food industry to take these new criteria into account in their recipes. Leveraging these official indicators as concrete incentive for food manufacturers to change their offer if they want to remain competitive, Stéphane is using it as an opportunity to start discussions with the agri-food industry itself. In partnership with the French Public Health Agency, he is currently co-designing a platform with a group of food manufacturers that would provide them with the right tools to analyze their offer compared to their competitors and identify vectors for improvement with regards to the nutritional value of their products.
Over the past 50 years, the significant evolution of food consumption has led to the development of a mass industrial food supply in line with our new lifestyles: 70% of French household’s food expenditures are spent in supermarkets and more than 80% of the food is processed and/or “ready to eat” meaning that the food is more caloric, less nutritious, and contains a lot of additives.
Consequently, the quality of our daily diet declines, which leads to the growth of diseases like obesity, cardiovascular problems and even cancers (even if not the only determinant). In 2016, according to the World Health Organization, 39% of women and 39% of men aged 18 or more over the world were overweight. More recently, the French Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team reported an increased risk of cardiovascular disease among consumers of highly processed foods after having demonstrated associations between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risks of cancer, mortality, depressive symptoms, and digestive functional disorders.
Because of a lack of scientific knowledge but also of a lack of transparency coming from the food industry, citizens are unaware of the consequences of their food habits on their health. Furthermore, even the most aware consumers remain powerless because of a lack of comprehensive and understandable data on packaging that could help them make enlighten choices.
The agri-food market being one of the most competitive, food manufacturers are urged to release the cheapest products with the best taste and aspect, a combination almost only accessible thanks to the use of fat, additives (etc.). The whole industry has been designed to compete for price, never for nutritional value, which has fostered a deep culture of secrecy, none of them willing to disclose their recipes and communicate about the ingredients used. This lack of incentive to work on nutrition combined with the industrial complexity of changing the recipe of a product and the fear of jeopardizing the profitability leads to a situation where food manufacturers, even if at the heart of the problem, don’t change their processes and mindsets.
In 2012, since food manufacturers were not eager to display the data on their products, Stéphane decided to make it freely available by relying on citizen-consumers, who can add the information to the database themselves, through an app they can use while shopping or at home. Product after product, day after day, Open Food Facts’ contributors have been taking pictures of packaging, have registered (and keep doing it) the different ingredients composing the food (salt, sugar, additives etc.). To begin, Stéphane intentionally solicited two groups of people he knew would be strong allies: a community of 5.000 cooking bloggers he had access to thanks to a cooking website he had created, and the geek community populated with individuals already convinced of the power of data in general and the importance of collecting it to serve the general interest.
This way, Stéphane has launched a movement similar to Wikipedia, based on citizens contributions all over the world and open-data principles, playing a role of food awareness catalyzer by allowing anybody to tap into the data-base and rehash the data for its own use. Today, dozens of nutritional apps are relying on Open Food Facts’ data to give advice to their users willing to get oriented in their food choices.
Once the information is in the database, an algorithm synthesizes and translates it in an understandable way. From the very beginning, Stéphane had the conviction consumers needed simple guidance in their purchases decision and given elements that could help to compare products. He had originally set-up an in-house, easy-to-use scoring system with indicators understandable by anybody, inspired by what was already done for household electrical devices through an energy label. In 2015, when he heard about a nutritional quality indicator developed by researchers of the French Programme for Nutritional Health (the “Nutri-Score”), he immediately reached out to the Professor in charge, willing to get the authorization to use the Nutri-Score to replace his in-house scoring system and instinctively feeling that there were avenues of collaborations with research. Indeed, Stéphane not only allowed them to practically demonstrate the validity of their algorithm through his app but also accelerated and facilitated its legal recognition in France and hopefully other countries in the future. Stéphane has been fostering scientific research in nutrition and actively participating in it through collaborative work with nutritionist researchers to ensure that the data collected by citizens can properly be used in their studies, ensuring a better understanding of industrial food consequences on health. He facilitates and creates even more opportunities for research thanks to the adaptation of his growing database. Despite the risk of occasionally displaying inaccurate data, relying on non-professional consumers to feed the database has proven extremely powerful: most of the main food manufacturers now directly communicate their data regarding ingredients to Open Food Facts. They mainly do it because they want the information on their products shared on the platform and on which consumers base their choices to be accurate.
Stéphane has designed a sophisticated model relying on strong working principles allowing Open Food Facts to systematically maximize its impact. First, Open Food Facts will always remain a non-profit organization and independent from the food industry in order to be always able to make the data gathered freely available to all and to act under open-source principles. Considering themselves as a public service, they mainly rely on public subsidies, citizen donations and on a powerful community of 20,000 contributors. A quarter of these contributors go beyond just fueling the database, and actively participate in the development of Open Food Facts’ tools (tech improvement, translations to develop activities in other countries, working on environmental issues going further than nutrition etc.). Scientists, researchers, web developers, coders, translators digitally communicate, reflect, make suggestions, offer their help etc. For several years, Stéphane has been keeping this community growing, alive and motivated thanks to his ethics and trust principles. As a matter of fact, he constantly guarantees to contributors that this project is for the benefit of all and that it will never stray from this common good purpose; and he puts people in charge, giving them a significant place in the project and the governance. To develop more financial self-reliance, Stéphane is on his way to build partnerships with Health Insurances and is considering developing a rewarding activity he could sell to regions, to promote their local products on Open Food Facts application.
From the beginning, Stéphane has envisioned his project on a global scale, therefore, the Open Food Facts’ app and website are already translated into many languages. Stéphane’s aim is to develop internationally, with a special focus on countries particularly affected by health issues related to food, and no strong public health policies to fight against it. A dozen of countries are starting to be active, France being the first, then Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, UK, Italy, Netherlands but also US, Canada, Australia and Mexico. To do so, he is relying on the power of word of mouth and the internet that allows him to rapidly create local communities, starting with just a few allies coming from the open data world. Furthermore, he leverages his partnership with the French Public Health agency to reach out to public health agencies in other countries. The international roll-out of the Nutri-Score is also a powerful tool for scaling-up since when it is discussed by legislative bodies in a country, it generates a media coverage and public interest particularly useful for Open Food Facts.
In France especially, Open Food Facts has definitely contributed to the emergence of transparency in the food sector. Several nutritional apps rely on Open Food Facts database to give advice to their users. The fact that, according to a recent poll, one French person out of four is using a nutritional app during their grocery shopping speaks for itself. Furthermore, the Nutri-Score indicator, despite fierce lobbying, is now legally recognized in France, Belgium and Spain, and on its way to spread out internationally relying on Open Food Facts to convince local authorities of its relevance, in partnership with the team of researchers of the French Programme for Nutritional Health who initiated it. The emergence of this culture of transparency has contributed to a raise of consumers’ awareness and a change in their consumption habits: Europeans care more and more about the composition of the food they eat: among nutritional apps users, when talking about ultra-processed food (ready-made meals, cookies etc.), a third gives up a brand if the nutritional value is not satisfactory. Consequently, nutrition is now an opportunity for competitors to differentiate their offers, and manufacturers have no choice but to work on the improvement of their recipes and change their practices. Recipes are changed step by step, a joint French report by the Health Security Agency (ANSES) and the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA) recently demonstrated that, since 2010, the proportion of food without additives rose from 13.7% to 18.3%.
Stéphane is now seizing the opportunity of the introduction of the Nutri-Score in the law and also its dissemination to help food manufacturers calculate their Nutri-Score (very complex formula) but above all support them in improving the overall quality of their products. In partnership with the French Public Health Agency (Santé Publique France), he is currently building solutions for and with them through the development of an online platform that would allow them to analyze their offer compared to similar products - which is currently impossible for them to do - and identify levers to nutritionally improve their offer without compromising the taste, which is technically highly complex. Food manufacturers are incentivized by the hope of getting a better grade on the Nutri-Score, now featured on 25% of the sales volumes of processed products in France.
To increase transparency not only about nutrition, but also the environmental impact of food production, Stéphane is replicating his strategy and will pursue his work on freeing up environmental data on products (water consumption, transports, ingredients origin etc.). First, he is working on the elaboration of a comprehensive indicator. He is doing it by collaborating with the French Agency for Environment (ADEME) and being part of an important working group reflecting on a potential “Eco-Score” (score on environmental impact of food products). Secondly, given the fact that manufacturers are not yet inclined to display environmental information on their products, Stéphane will force food manufacturers to release it through the same mechanism, relying on citizen-consumer power to release the data, even if information initially published will be based on approximations and hypothesis.
As the son of an engineer mother, as soon as he learnt to read, Stéphane became passionate about computer sciences and fascinated with the possibilities offered by computers to create links and foster collaboration, inspired by the community aspect of the “geek corporation”. During his youth and adult life, he became involved in and launched several digital projects, always serving the community’s needs. As a teenager and even before the existence of the internet, he created an inventive platform where people could exchange news in order to give the opportunity to anybody to become a journalist and talk about their ideas and passions. Later on, as a student, he initiated the first French web city-guide for the city of Nantes and soon after, launched the very first French blogging platform, allowing anybody without digital skills to create his or her own website, deeply driven by his willing to empower people and give them spaces of free expression.
After graduating, he worked for Yahoo as a computer scientist in the US and in France, for 10 years, still working on his side projects nights and weekends. In 2010, willing to test if what he was doing on the side could potentially allow him to earn a living, he quit his job to launch his own company: a website aggregating 5.000 cooking bloggers and convening two millions of regular visitors. Shortly after, he had a short conversation with one of the cooking bloggers of his community, who was teasing him on the responsibility of his platform in terms of public health, since he was encouraging readers to eat more and more sugar! This conversation struck him, and he organized working groups with engaged food-bloggers to think about it. Meanwhile, he started looking for information on food to give to his 3 children. Since he could not find any data, he realized the glaring lack of transparency in the agro-industry and decided to launch Open Food Facts in 2012, asking his 5.000 cooking bloggers to be among the first to contribute to the database that would soon revolutionize the food sector. During 2018, seeing the impact Open Food Facts had and realizing the importance of his organization’s role in shifting the industry’s mindset, he decided to start spending all his time on it.