The claim submitted by infant formula maker Mead Johnson won in 2009 an EFSA positive opinion for visual development in infants up to 12 months if products contained at least 0.3 per cent of their fatty acid content in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
The claim was then validated at EC committee level, but an EP committee last month narrowly voted to oppose it (30-28) and next week the Parliament will vote on whether to send the claim to the EU legislature or to scrap it.
Most vocal of those against the claim is pro-breast feeding group Baby Milk Action (BMA) which questions EFSA's opinion that safety and efficacy has been demonstrated for the nutrient, and highlights ongoing US Food and Drug Administration investigations around it.
It therefore opposes adding claims to breast milk substitutes (in this case follow-on formulas and baby foods aimed at babies between the ages of 6-12 months) that may make them more attractive to mothers and care givers.
Their call has been backed by groups such as UNICEF, the International Association for the Study of Obesity, and the International Obesity TaskForce.
UNICEF said allowing claims on follow-on formula would "undermine" European Union efforts to promote breast feeding.
"On the basis, therefore, of these observations, UNICEF would be supportive of the proposed resolution opposing health claims," it stated.
BMA's Patti Rundall told NutraIngredients:"This approval is based on industry-funded science and is damaging to people's understanding of breast milk substitutes."
Pro-claim lobbying has come from industry members and industry groups like the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), health groups such as the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and perhaps most significantly, from the EC and EFSA.
The Commission sent a missive to all MEPs because, as Basil Mathioudakis, the EC’s Unit Head of Food Law, Nutrition and Labelling, told this publication, it is of the view that, "some information on the issue was appropriate".
"The document is factual and concerns procedures and scientific aspects," he said, while not speculating on what may occur if the motion against the claim was passed in the Parliament in Strasbourg, France. "The resolution is there - it is for the MEPs to vote."
Generally accepted scientific evidence?
The EC letter affirmed that EFSA's opinion was based on, "generally accepted scientific evidence" as well as the fact the claim to be voted on was not applicable to infant formulas marketed to babies up to six months of age.
Under separate regulations, such products can carry no claims and must bear statements about the superiority of breast feeding.
The Commission also attached an EFSA letter that addressed points on which its positive opinion had been challenged. These included why its health claims panel formed a different opinion to a Cochrane Review that found no overall visual benefit, because it selected for studies with 0.3 per cent or more DHA content of total fatty acid content, whereas the Cochrane Review did not.
Its letter discounted safety concerns raised in a study as unreliable due to the low number of subjects.
GOED's letter to MEPs concluded: "Voting against this claim will prevent appropriate labeling, and thereby discourage parents from choosing infant formula products, when necessary, that provide the best nutritional advantage for their infants.
But Rundall said if the evidence was so conclusive why not make DHA fotification mandatory for all infant products.
Others to weigh in on the issue included the International Pediatric Association (IPA) and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) which backed the claim as having "solid data".
The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises stated: "If this resolution of the EP would be positively voted next week, this would undermine the scientific independence of EFSA, which itself was demanded by the European Parliament."
Science versus emotion
Claims consultant Nigel Baldwin, from Cantox International, said the industry had been forced into a lobbying battle after the EP committee vote.
"The industry probably thought the work was over after the claim was approved but they have been forced to react because of the force of the anti-claim lobbying," Baldwin said. "Because we are talking about infants there is a lot of emotion tied up with it so it has in a way become a battle of science versus emotion."
Mead Johnson was not available for comment at the time of publication.