Byrne puts record straight on health claims

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

Putting paid to media lip-service and the 'wildly false picture' it
has painted, EU Commissioner David Byrne defends European proposals
to clarify health and nutrition claims on food products.

Speaking in Brussels last week before the German EEP Group of the European Parliament, Byrne spelt out that the food claims proposal 'does not mark a radical departure for the food industry, but simply harmonises diverse rules that currently exist between member states.'

Proposed in July last year, the Commission regulatory framework covers nutrition claims - such as 'rich in vitamin C' - by defining what they mean and setting thresholds for the use of such claims. In short, nutritional claims must be justifiable.

The framework also covers health claims - that is, claims which state or imply a health benefit to the consumer.

Falling under the approval of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a list of claims is expected to be drawn up within three years of the rules entering into force - which the Commission is pushing for this year.

'The fundamental point is that consumers should be able to make food choices based on clear and accurate information,'​ said the Commissioner last week.

As such, aiming to tackle 'vague' claims, Byrne warned that claims such as 'purifies you from the inside', or 'preserves youth' would be prohibited under the new rules.

Other restrictions will also apply - for example to slimming or weight control claims and to claims made on alcoholic drinks.

But industry is not 100 per cent in agreement. "The future EU regulatory framework, while preventing false or misleading claims, must at the same time give industry the flexibility and incentive to continue to invest in research and development, to develop products with a scientifically substantiated health benefit and to inform consumers accordingly,"​ Jean Martin, president of Europe's food industry body the CIAA, said last July on learning of the Commission initiative.

His words echoed those of the European Health Products Manufacturers Association, which also voiced its concern about the draft legislation.

"Superficially these appear helpful but in practice they prevent food and food supplement producers from explaining the contribution of their products to health.

Flexibility is needed so that labels and literature can use language suited to different degrees of understanding, and messages whose terms are already well-accepted by consumers throughout Europe," said Pedro Vicente Azua, EHPM's director of regulatory affairs, in July. While backing the logic behind the new rules to harmonise rules at a European level, the food industry remains concerned that the health message might not get across under the proposed legislation.

"It is essential that food manufacturers retain the flexibility to translate scientific findings into a meaningful message for the consumer,"​ said the CIAA.

But Byrne is standing firm. 'The proposal is not a crackdown on health and nutrition claims - it is rather a regulating measure,'​ he said last week.

Pointing out the wider market implications for the food industry the Commissioner added that as well as restricting certain claims the proposal actually opens the door to a new category of claims, he said.

Reduction of disease risk claims are currently banned under EU legislation, but in the future suc claims will be permitted provided they can be 'scientifically substantiated and have received EU autorisation,'​ he said.

Responding to criticisms that the new rules may somehow impinge on the freedom of speech and 'would restrict the creativity of advertisers' Byrne upheld that the 'proposal aims to prevent misinformation, not information'.

Calling last week on the European members of Parliament to back the proposals, Byrne concluded : 'I would urge you to examine the food claims proposal. We will get absolutely nowhere in the sensitive area of food and nutrition by instinctively attacking new initiatives.'​ But the debate is far from over.

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