Under the terms of the deal made in the European Parliament on Tuesday, companies will face less stringent and shorter regulatory procedures when making nutritional claims about their products, the Financial Times said.
The compromise agreement reduces proposals on product advertising and nutritional claims original proposed by the European Commission in 2003. The only products that will still be submitted to very strict procedures will be those claiming to reduce a specific health risk, such as heart disease, the newspaper reported.
Food companies and industry associations have argued that the tougher rules would harm their business and pose a financial burden for them.
On 16 July 2003, the Commission adopted a proposal for a Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims on Foods. The proposal aims to establish a harmonised regulatory framework for all claims.
Manufacturers may only make nutrition claims or general health claims if these appear in a positive list of permissible claims. Innovative health claims, in particular those which claim to reduce the risk of contracting certain diseases, would be covered by an authorisation procedure, via the European Food Safety Authority.
Following the European Parliament vote in first reading, the Council adopted a common position in December 2005. The timetable for a second reading foresees a vote in plenary in May 2006.
According to an analysis by the Confederation of the food and drink industries of the European Union (CIAA) the European Parliament strongly supports the right of food manufacturers to communicate the health benefits of their foodstuffs.
The Parliament also introduced the notification procedure, involving a concept of a lighter procedure other than authorisation, for certain types of health claims.
The common position changed the Commission's proposal in respect of two controversial points. The changes affected a former article 11, which imposed bans on certain health claims and Article 4, which sets a ban on the communication of health benefits linked to a food according to its level of fat, sugar and salt.
Article 4 also states that nutrient profiles are a key element of the proposed regulation.
"The challenge is to find the right compromise on article 4 and the procedure, which will provide manufacturers with the legal security needed to encourage innovation and which will be flexible enough to ensure that, within each product category, operators have an incentive to develop healthier options," the CIAA stated in its annual report earlier this year.
The Commission and European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) had been opposed to 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 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.
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.