The European Commission has issued a statement relating to its proposed Regulation on health and nutrition claims announced on 16 July 2003 in a bid to clear up complaints based on 'myths and misunderstandings'.
The EC stated that many of these concerns refer to products that are not covered by the Regulation, while other issues have been subject to misinterpretation and it feels that it is time to set the record straight.
The proposal covers nutrition claims (eg 'rich in vitamin C' or 'low in fat') and health claims (i.e. claims of a positive relationship between a specific food and improved health). It sets rules for making such claims and also allows health claims (including 'reduction of disease risk' claims) that were previously prohibited.
The EC states that the Regulation has been designed to protect consumers, improve the free movement of goods, increase the legal security of operators and prevent abusive claims, thus ensuring fair competition. It urges that the proposal should result in a more liberal environment for claims in labelling and advertising. As a result disease-related messages, which were until now totally prohibited by EU legislation, will be allowed if they can be scientifically substantiated and authorised at EU level.
The affected claims are voluntarily put on products by producers as a marketing tool. Therefore, if positive claims cannot be established, the EC claims the Regulation will not oblige anyone to make negative claims.
The report highlights the fact that before finalising the proposal, there was extensive consultation with stakeholders including consumers and industry. It claims that consumer organisations have welcomed the proposed Regulation as an important step towards better informing consumers and preventing much of the misleading advertising found in the market today. On the industry side it says it will regulate a marketplace that until now was made difficult by very diverse national rules and should prevent unfair competition from unscrupulous manufacturers.
Other wrong claims, according to the Commission, include the banning of slogans for non-food products and advertising slogans for food products, drinks and sweets such as 'Red Bull gives you wings'. The EC says it wishes to reassure the industry that advertising slogans such as these that do not make health or nutrition claims will still be allowed.
The EC also suggests that reports in the press have stated that the Regulation will 'ban food advertising' or that some foods will be forbidden. This, it urges, is not true, as it will merely regulate labelling and advertising that makes health and nutrition claims in order to avoid misleading consumers. It also proposes to limit the communication of nutritional or health benefits of certain food with an undesirable nutritional profile (eg foods high in fat or sugar).
However the Commission confirms that some health and nutrition claims will be banned. Any information about foods and their nutritional or health benefits used in labelling, marketing and advertising which is not clear, accurate and meaningful and cannot be substantiated will not be permitted. Furthermore, vague claims referring to general wellbeing or claims making reference to psychological and behavioural functions will not be allowed. Slimming or weight control claims will not be allowed.
Reference to and endorsement by doctors or health professionals will not be permitted as they might suggest that not eating the specified food might lead to health problems, notes the EC.
The Commission adds that the proposed Regulation is designed to establish conditions whereby products can claim to be low in fat or calories, preventing much of the misleading advertising that is present on the market today. Therefore, to claim that something is low fat it must be less than 3g/100g or 1.5g/100ml. It will also be forbidden to make claims such as '90 per cent fat free' since this means that the fat content is in fact rather high and so the claim is misleading.
Claims such as "fruit is healthy" will not be banned, but the Regulation will require that the nutritional and/or health benefits be explained in order to show the benefits of this type of product.
The EC says it has received complaints about the authorisation process for health claims such as disease-risk reduction messages. It points out that, as such messages are currently totally prohibited by EU legislation, the purpose of the Regulation is to relax this prohibition and allow those health claims that can be substantiated.
Finally the EC confirms that the proposal will not establish a new agency but will give an important role to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which will carry out the scientific evaluation of health claims. It will nevertheless be up to food business operators to propose the wording of the claim or claims that they want to make, thereby maintaining flexibility for manufacturers.