"We aren’t going to wake up one day and everything will be crystal clear; there’s going to be some trial and error going through it.”

Godsend or Godzilla? What will Japan’s new health claims system look like?

By RJ Whitehead & Shane Starling at Health Ingredients-Japan in Tokyo

- Last updated on GMT

Firms like Nexira promote nutrient-health links at shows like HI-Japan, but they do not always make it onto products as claims
Firms like Nexira promote nutrient-health links at shows like HI-Japan, but they do not always make it onto products as claims
Japan will implement a new health claims system that is set to supersede its strict FOSHU regime in April 2015 – just six months away – but what form will it take and will it meet its deadline?

With no formal guideline in place and uncertainty about the kind of science that will be required to back claims – not to mention how the law will function – the future of claims in Japan has dominated discussion among local and multinational players at Health Ingredients-Japan this week.

Most welcomed what they view as liberating marketing changes to a costly and some say fatigued FOSHU (Foods for Specific Health Uses) system, while others are taking a more wait-and-see approach.

Diseased research populations

Laurent Finet, the managing director of French supplier Nexira’s Japanese operation, said a key point was the likely inclusion of research based on non-healthy populations or population sub-groups – as opposed to the European Union nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) which highly favours research conducted on healthy populations.

“To use patients as a research base makes sense especially when the ageing population is considered and which is driving a lot of this, so we will see what happens with that,” ​Finet said.

“Without health claims the market was stable but this is going to shake up the industry and give us opportunities. FOSHU is no longer a selling point as there are too many FOSHU claims.”

“But the competition will be harsh. Take lutein. If it wins an eye health claim there could be a rush to market, a price war and the products with it could quickly become commoditised. But we will see.”

A positive side-effect of the regulation will be increased scrutiny on adulteration, Finet said, something that has plagued botanicals like bilberry and ginseng in Japan and elsewhere for many years.

Timing, form

The law changes see some supplement manufacturers and functional food makers – some Japanese, some foreign – preparing their documents to fire the first applications to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare when the system goes live.

Finet said bigger supplement makers like DHG, Herbalife, Amway and Fancl were more likely to take a wait-and-see approach to let the dust settle on the first applications and learn from them. (The regulation is set to apply to specific products and so manufacturers will be the applicants not ingredients suppliers.)

Norwegian krill supplier Aker Biomarine warned those hoping to find a clean sweep of reforms in April 2015 may need to develop some pragmatism before Japanese labelling’s big day.

What they are going to give us will be rough​,” said Chris McReynolds, sales and marketing senior vice-president for Norwegian krill oil major Aker BioMarine. 

What we will see is not going to be the final format, structure and guidelines. We aren’t going to wake up one day and everything will be crystal clear; there’s going to be some trial and error going through it​.” 

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No quick fixes

Critical of the pace of other industry reforms in his home country, Fumihiro Uno, president of Dobunshoin Publishers, which produces the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, was more concerned about the pace of implementation for the new rules.

People expect things to happen quickly in Japan, but we aren’t so fast​,” he said. “This type of thing can take quite a while to move and there will be confusion. Japan doesn’t move as quickly as you expect, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up for a quick fix​.”

Suheel Joshi, marketing manager of India’s Savesta brand of herbal extracts was even more specific in his prediction.

They have fixed a date in 2015, but it will only be by at least 2016 that they will have finally opened up the market​,” he said.

Level playing field

In spite of the confusion that he expects will come with the April announcement, Aker’s McReynolds said this bedding-in process will be worth the industry’s patience. He said the benefits might not come immediately, but the initial framework will succeed in, “levelling the playing field for discussions and refinement to come into play​”. 

It’s not an automatic utopia. It gives an arena to discuss and refine the guidelines for everyone​."

Free-to-attend Healthy Ageing Forum: October 28

Insights into the Japanese and other global healthy ageing markets will be discussed and debated in a free online forum hosted by NutraIngredients on October 28.

The discussion with leading experts will explore the actions of the food, drink  and supplement brand leaders, the formulations, the science and regulatory environment in an unmissable forum that spans demographics as it does all elements of the healthy foods and supplements sectors.

Sign up here​.

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