The EU nutrition and health claims regulations has been in the works for a number of years and was finally adopted in October after considerably wrangling between the parliament and the council of ministers and a last minute hitch over the comitology procedure.
There remains much work to be done in compiling the lists of generic health claims and hammering out procedures for future claims submissions, but companies should regard the new rules as affecting them only in the future, Guy Valkenborg, director of European Advisory Services told attendees at the summit in London on Tuesday.
The regulation will only come into force following publication, December 2006 at the earliest but maybe as late as mid-2007 - and it will be applicable six months later.
As for the timing of different elements of the regulation, Valkenbord gave the timetable for when two of the most discussed elements will hit the market.
It is foreseen that nutrient profiles be elaborated within two years of the regulation entering into force - that is, by 2009. However there will be a two-year transition period, and they will have an effect on the market two years later, in 2011.
Article 13, on well-established claims, does not contain the same transition window. Member states must submit their lists of proposed claims by early 2008, after which the final list will be drawn up within two years. But there are no guarantees that proposed claims will make it onto the final list, and if there are any surprises companies may find themselves having to withdraw products immediately. Valkenbord said: "A lot of people will be confronted with disasters when they realise they should have taken steps they have not." Eva Hurt, Nestle regulatory affairs, presented attendees with a to do list to prepare for the legislation:
They should ensure that all new claims are in line with the regulations; the impact on claims already on the market should be assessed; companies should ensure there is adequate scientific basis for all claims; the appropriate dossiers should be prepared and submitted where required.
Hurt said that, in general, her company is quite pleased with the shape of the regulation. "As a big company, there are synergies between products sold across several markets," - although she conceded that it will take "a bit of re-thinking and re-positioning".
She also said that the question of whether EFSA has sufficient funded to discharge its assigned duty of reviewing and approving submitted claims.
Volkenborg expressed more reservations: "Maybe some re-writing would not be a bad idea," he said.
His view was echoed forcefully by keynote speaker Avril Doyle, Fine Gael MEP and serving on the EU Committee for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. She said the regulation would be "better sent back for redrafting".
The impact of the regulation is unlikely to be the same for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as it is for large multinational companies, since the former may find the costs and the resources required to comply difficult.
This could have a negative effect on innovation in the healthy food sector, and ultimately change the face and health driven direct of the industry at large.