The concept of diet foods must be abolished to close loopholes in existing EU legislation and "to limit the possibility for companies to do 'legislative shopping'," the Commission argued in new proposals put forward this week (20 June).
Indeed, an impact assessment carried out by the Commission showed that current EU legislation on dietetic foods is being used by some companies to circumvent stricter European legislation on nutrition and health claims.
European consumers' group BEUC agreed with the EU executive and warned consumers of "borderline products" and "unclear labelling" on diet foods.
"This situation distorts the market and results in an uneven playing field for food operators and unfair competition," the Commission argued.
Furthermore, it said existing directives were being applied differently across member states, creating confusion among consumers. "Consumers in some member states are denied a full product range while others may be insufficiently protected from products which typically carry a price premium, but may not offer the benefits implied through labelling and associated marketing," the Commission said.
Changes in labelling, price?
Food manufacturers were concerned and warned that the removal of the EU directive on dietetic foods would "remove the special protection of vulnerable consumers which has existed for over three decades".
The EU executive sought to reassure them, saying that no products would have to be withdrawn from the market as a result of the new rules. Moreover, they will have two years to conform with the new legislation.
"In order to facilitate the adaptation of products and reduce costs for operators, mainly in terms of re-labelling, a two-year transitional period is foreseen," the Commission explained.
The EU executive also suggested that removing the "diet" claim on food packaging may have benefits for consumers as it "may reduce the price of certain foods that are not substantially different from their normal food equivalents".
The proposal, tabled on 20 June, repeals the current Framework Directive on dietetic foods and abolishes the concept of dietetic foods altogether. The EU executive's new legislative proposal that replaces it will be limited to foods intended for infants and young children and to foods with special medical purposes.
Dietetic foods – gluten-free food, slimming food and sports foods – will from now on be solely covered by already existing legislation, such as a law on nutrition and health claims and a regulation on the addition of vitamins, minerals and other substances to foods (see 'Background').
According to the Commission, this reformed EU legislative framework will "adequately cover all products addressing nutritional benefits for the general population and certain sub-groups thereof with less administrative burden and more clarity as to their scope".
The proposed new regulation would also establish a single EU list of substances, instead of the existing three, that can be added to these foods.