The penalties published are for non-compliance to the European Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) No. 1924/2006.
It is an obligation for Member States to introduce appropriate sanctions for infringements.
“Italy was a wayward pupil in not having introduced sanctions before,” said Luca Bucchini, managing director of Hylobates Consulting, a food safety regulatory affairs consultancy, “The reason for this delay was a conflict between authorities”.
The EU regulation states that the use of nutrition and health claims shall not be false, ambiguous or misleading or give rise to doubt about the safety and/or the nutrition adequacy of other foods.
Health claims also must not encourage or condone excess consumption of a food; state, suggest or imply that a balanced and varied diet cannot provide appropriate quantities of nutrients in general; and/or refer to changes in bodily functions which give rise to or exploit fear in the consumer, either textually or through pictorial, graphic or symbolic representations.
However, widespread and consistent enforcement is needed in order to discourage wrongful claims, as Bucchini fears the financial penalties may not be enough as they are “mild”
“The fines are not high and, unfortunately, are the same amounts for small businesses and for large companies, for a label on a few units of products and for a multi-million social media and TV campaigns,” Bucchini said.
The maximum fine for making reference to the amount of weight loss an ingredient could result in, is valued at €40,000.
However, fine imposed by the anti-trust authority in Italy (AGCM) could be as high as €5m.
Bucchini continued that this is a consequence of general administrative law in Italy and is more likely to encourage small businesses to pay attention to the law rather than to discipline large campaigns.
Furthermore, Bucchini argues that consumers are most often misled by large miscommunication efforts which can only be reined in by tough sanctions.
“From a practical standpoint, EU businesses selling foods in Italy should be aware that authorities now have a straightforward way to impose fines for even small breaches of the NHCR, so they should make sure that, because of lack of attention, they do not fail to comply,” added Bucchini.
The regulations apply to health claims which are authorised in the US, but not in Europe. Wrongful uses of US health claims in Europe would result in an average financial penalty of €8,000.
Omitting a reference to the importance of a varied diet and healthy lifestyle when making health claims could carry a fine of €4,000, meaning attention to detail was assessing labels and advertisements is key.