Following months of dispute over the EU Nutrition and Health Claims on Foods proposal, the parliament has adopted a second-reading report that includes a compromise on health claim labelling and a revised registration procedure for new products declaring nutritional benefits.
MEPs voted 45 to nine, with six abstentions, to approve the modified report for a second reading, which includes the re-adoption of two contentious clauses originally removed by parliament in the first reading last May - albeit in compromised form.
The Commission and European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) had been up in arms over the exclusion of article 4 which would prevent the use of health claims to promote foods with high sugar, salt or fat.
At first reading last year the parliament voted to remove this provision by a slim majority, but following a European Parliament's Environment Committee (ENVI) recommendation, the second reading now contains the section. It cannot be deleted from future legislation.
But in a compromise, a clause was added to allow a qualified MEP majority of 367 votes to amend the wording. Those wishing to do so must launch an offensive and pool their efforts in time for the second official reading in mid-May.
And in further concession to consumer lobbyist pressure and commission concern, article 17 introducing a revised EC-controlled registration system of new foods carrying health claims will now be developed, to replace the existing lengthy procedure.
The regulation includes a list of claims - such as "sugar free", "low fat", high fibre" - and defines the conditions to be met for using them. But now, under article 17, a fast-track registration procedure will be introduced that aims to both protect consumers and simplify the product launches for the industry.
David Hare of health sector lobby group the Whitehouse Consultancy told NutraIngredients.com: "There was trouble at the first reading because labelling for good and bad foods was proposed rather than good and bad diets. For example, under the old proposal cheese couldn't say it was a good food with a lot of calcium because it is high in fat.
"What has been introduced is a feasibility study process, as opposed to going ahead and labelling anyway."
BEUC acknowledged these changes were a step in the right direction for consumer protection in the controversial nutritional food arena. It said the re-instated articles are "two necessary elements in a much wider battle against obesity and other diet related issues."
Jim Murray, BEUC director, stated: "We do not often say this, but on nutrient profiles and prior authorisation, the Commission and the Council are on the 'side of angels'. We hope the Parliament will join them in the second reading."
But there are still many other issues left unresolved. Hare explained "there is still a lot of anger among MEPs about the way in which the council has only taken about 10 of the 19 proposals. It did not take many amendments on board."
Other important amendments sought to simplify labelling procedure within the functional foods industry, to restrict health claims for children and to exclude from legislation any existing trademarks whose titles imply nutritional benefits.