According to Unilever and challenger Foodwatch, the judge indicated Unilever (and any similar entity) should be able to quote expert opinions in such missives, something Foodwatch said set a dangerous precedent in food communications while placing public health in danger.
“We are disappointed. The judge says it is a freedom of information issue but this is a food safety issue,” Foodwatch’s Oliver Huizinga told us. Foodwatch wants pro.activ and similar products like Raisio’s plant stanol-based Benecol range reclassified as medicines and says on-packet warnings stating the products are not suitable for people without cholesterol issues are insufficient. “They are sold with the other margarines and this is not acceptable."
The food sector watchdog and consumer rights advocate took Unilever to court in 2012 after Unilever issued a press release quoting food scientists (Dr Hans-Ulrich Klör and Dr Eberhard Windler) saying there was from a scientific perspective "no indication of side effects" such as atherosclerotic plaques from consuming pro.activ. Foodwatch lost that case and so appealed.
“Nothing has changed..."
“We expect that the appeals court will follow this verdict which it has already indicated during today’s hearing,” Unilever said of its cholesterol-lowering products.
“Nothing has changed, as far as we are concerned: We stand by our product. Becel pro.activ is a foodstuff that is assessed as safe and which actively lowers cholesterol levels and can thus make a contribution to reducing one of the cardiovascular disease risk factors.”
It added: “Over 70% of the German population aged over 45 have a cholesterol level that is too high. This is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, of which 345.000 people died last year alone in Germany. That is what we should be thinking about again now instead of fighting in the courts.”
Plant sterols and stanols were backed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Union to make cholesterol reducing claims in 2009, some of the first approvals under the nascent EU nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR). The claim was refined last year so that products sold in the EU's 28 member states had to carry warnings that they were not suitable for healthy people.
Huizinga said post-2008 data and scientific reviews should be reviewed by EFSA, something the Parma, Italy-based agency has indicated is not “a high priority”.
Actors like the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in 2008 called for a plant sterol-stanol safety review due to research that showed potential cardiovascular problems may be linked to overconsumption of sterol margarines, milks and breads by children and others that did not have raised cholesterol levels.
The French Food Safety Authority (ANSES) last year questioned the products' efficacy and safety, while not completely refuting the EU backing.
Huizinga accused the German government of “protecting the food industry“ by not doing more to enforce food safety.
The global market for sterol-stanol based products is estimated to be worth about €2.5bn. Claims are approved in Norway, Switzerland, the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Israel, Iceland, Japan and Canada.
The Hamburg court is expected to deliver its verdict on September 1.