Health claims proposal meets with industry concern

Related tags Claims Nutrition European union

The European Commission yesterday proposed a new regulation to
clamp down on unsubstantiated health claims used on foods and
supplements.

The European Commission yesterday proposed a new regulation to clamp down on unsubstantiated health claims used on foods.

The new legislation, which also covers supplements, will require claims such as 'low fat' or 'high fibre' to meet specific content requirements, while vague claims referring to general wellbeing ('helps your body resist stress') or claims making reference to psychological and behavioural functions ('reduces stress and adds optimism') will be banned.

Other claims to be removed from food labels include reference to and endorsement by doctors, and slimming or weight control claims, such as 'halves/reduces your calories intake'. Health claims on alcoholic beverages above 1.2 per cent will also be banned, apart from those referring to a reduction in alcohol or energy content.

David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said that both industry and consumers would benefit from the new proposal. "Consumers will receive accurate and meaningful information while food producers will be able to use serious and scientifically substantiated claims as a marketing tool without being drowned out by the many unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims that currently exist on the market."

He added that EU regulation of claims would allow food manufacturers to compete on a fair and equal basis across Member States.

But the Confederation of EU Food & Drink Industry (CIAA) finds fault with much of the regulation, warning the European institutions against any unnecessary restrictions on "the food and drink manufacturers' ability to communicate health benefits to consumers"​. The body encouraged EU legislators to pursue their "goal of stimulating innovation in the food sector"​.

The UK food and drink industry is also concerned that it burdens companies who wish to make a claim by requiring that they translate the proposed claim into all Member State languages, even though they may propose to market the product in only one or two countries.

As consumers have become increasingly concerned about diet and health, the food industry has responded with more detailed nutrition labelling and claims about the beneficial effects of certain foods. National laws kept sweeping claims about the alleged benefits of certain products under check, but there has been no EU-wide agreement about how far claims can go. Some countries developed a voluntary health claims procedure, such as the Joint Health Claims Initiative in the UK. The first Commission discussion on health and nutrition claims labelling took place in 2001, leading to a consultation with member states and stakeholders to help prepare the proposal in January this year.

The European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) called yesterday's draft "a very good proposal". "There are too many unfounded health and nutritional claims for food in the market. This proposal should help to ensure that consumers will have better and clearer information about the food they eat including, we hope, products that are eaten mainly by children,"​ said Jim Murray, director of BEUC.

For health claims, those which refer to what a food or a food component does to the consumer, the Commission is to make a positive list of well established claims that will be permitted, within three years of the regulation entering into force. More novel claims, such as 'whole grain may keep your heart healthy/may reduce the risk of heart disease', will still require scientific evaluation and pre-marketing approval, from the European Food Safety Authority.

As suggested in previous speeches, Byrne announced that the use of claims on some foods will be determined by their nutritional profile, ie the amount of total fat, saturates, sugar or salt contained in the foods. This is based on scientific evidence showing a link between over-consumption of such nutrients and some chronic diseases, as highlighted in the recent WHO report.

The European Federation of Health Product Manufacturers (EHPM) will no doubt have concerns that the regulation covers food supplements too. In comments last year, EHPM said the ban on claims for alcoholic drinks covered a number of tonics sold under food law. Multivitamins may also be affected.

Under the regulation, a claim that a food is a natural source of vitamins and minerals may only be made where the product contains at least 15 per cent of the recommended daily allowance specified in the Annex of Council Directive 90/496/EEC per 100g or 100ml. Claims for foods 'enriched or fortified' in vitamins or minerals, or with 'high vitamins and/or minerals' must also follow strict guidelines.

Food makers claiming the presence of a certain nutrient or another substance will also come under the regulation, as will claims stating that the content in one or more nutrients has been increased or 'reduced'.

Other claims discussed in the proposal include 'low sodium' or 'salt-free', 'high protein' and 'sugar-free'. A claim that a food is fat-free, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml, while claims expressed as 'X% fat-free' are to be prohibited.

The Commission plans to evaluate nutritional profiles within 18 months of adopting the regulation, consulting with stakeholders, EFSA and the Member States. Exemptions may be necessary for certain claims on foods depending on their role and importance in the diet of the population.

The new legislative draft will be forwarded to the European Parliament and the Council, with a view to entering into force by 2005.

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