EFSA welcomes health claims work but concerned about time frame
nutrition and health claims regulation as both an opportunity and a
challenge, but is concerned about the timeframe it will have to
At a three-day conference in Bologne last week, the Europe Food Standards Agency (EFSA) met with stakeholders to exchange views on the regulation, which was adopted last month and may come into force before the year is out.
Herman Koëter, EFSA director of science and chair of the conference's last day, said: "We realised that EFSA role in the context of the regulation needed to be explained. Had an opportunity to present that role, and to listen.
"We have done that up until the last minute, and we will not stop listening."
According to Koëter, the debate was friendly without too sharp differences of views. This was no doubt of some relief to the organisers, since certain aspects of the regulation, such as nutrient profiles and the claims approval process, have proved contentious during the legislative process.
The conference was attended by 197 people - although more than 400 had expressed an interest. The live webcast of the final day was viewed by 850 people, indicating the high level of interest that the conference has generated throughout the industry.
However even though EFSA is planning to make investments by hiring more staff, expanding the panel of scientific experts charged with evaluating claims from 17 to 21, and adding more working groups, it is still apprehensive about handling all the work that will be coming its way.
In particular, EFSA is concerned that the industry could make submissions as soon as the regulation is published - even if the guidance and the nutrient profiles are not ready yet. Since it has only five months within which an evaluation must be made, this could prove problematic at the beginning.
"If we receive the claims nicely one by one and have five months to do them we will have no problem," said Koëter.
If we receive 10 or 20 or 50 in a week or two and they all need to be handled in five months time we will have a problem - even if we receive them well after all the guidance has been completed."
If EFSA fails to meet the five-month deadline, it could be taken to court.
"We hope to have a relationship with the industry such that when we do not make a deadline we will come up with a solution that is acceptable to all," said Koëter.
The five-month deadline could also be a problem when dealing with complicated claims. For instance, claims on botanicals are likely to be complicated as they are used not only in food products but also in medicinal and cosmetic products, so will need to look at regulations relating to these as well so they are not at odds.
Despite the challenges, Koëter signalled that the agency is upbeat: "Its not going to be easy, but we are prepared to face the task and to invest."
He stressed that the organisation aims to keep in close contact with stakeholders - from industry, science and consumers groups - as it starts its work on claims approvals.
"EFSA also does not want to do it alone. EFSA cannot do it alone so rest assured we will maintain to involve all stakeholders as much as possible."
He also noted concerns that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may be at a disadvantage, but said that that all claims will go through the same process, no matter the size of the company.
"Does this mean SMEs are at a disadvantage? That may be true to some extent. But for the industry as a whole it must be seen as an opportunity, not only as a challenge."
The structure of last week's conference included a break-out session, for attendees to discuss pertinent issues in smaller groups.
Topics discussed included criteria for claims submissions, the aims and scope of nutrient profiles, different requirements for subgroups, and consumer perception and behaviour.
The groups reported back to main thrust of their discussion on the final morning. Amongst the most pressing matters, the groups highlighted the importance of not stifling innovation in the food industry, and the need for guidance on the sort of information that should be prepared for a claim and how it will be assessed.
Koëter said that the panel and working groups will be starting work immediately, and will give the highest priority to guidance.
"That does not mean that will forget about profiling, but can't do it all at once."
He added that EFSA will continue to gain understanding from the Commission on what will be required of it.
The full, glossy report of last week's meeting will be prepared, and follow-up meetings are foreseen.
A view-on-demand version of the webcast is being made available today on EFSA's website.