Stakeholders have exchanged views on striking a balance between the consumers’ right to know and industry’s freedom to advertise at a public hearing on nutrition and health claims made on food packaging.
A public hearing was held in the European Parliament on 8 January 2004 to discuss the proposed new regulation.
Two articles in the proposal text are proving to be particularly controversial. Article 4, which lays down the conditions for restricting the use of nutrition and health claims. It calls on the Commission to establish nutrient profiles (with reference to fat, sugar and salt/sodium content) for each food category within 18 months from the adoption of the regulation.
Article 11 stipulates which “implied health claims” should not be allowed. This includes claims referring to general benefits for overall well-being; claims with reference to slimming or weight control or claims making reference to the advice of health professionals.
Another disputed provision in the proposal is that beverages containing more than 1.2 per cent volume of alcohol should generally not bear health and nutritional claims.
Commissioner for Public Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne outlined the key elements in the proposal and explained that the new regulation will "not mark a radical departure for the food industry." Its objective is to harmonise the diverse rules that currently exist across the Member States. Mr Byrne went on to explain that nutrition claims would have to be substantiated and that the Commission would draw up a list of well-established health claims that will be permitted within three years of the regulation's entry into force.
Commission Director Paola Testori Coggi responsible for Food Safety explained that the new regulation will create a clearer regulatory framework for the industry. Ms Testori Coggi emphasised that the Commission has no intention to define 'good food' and 'bad food' and that the proposal strictly covers claims on food products while brand names do not fall within the scope of the proposal. The director added that the regulation opens up the possibility for a new group of claims on foods, those referring to diseases (subject to EFSA authorisation).
EP Rapporteur Mauro Nobilia agreed with the Commission's view that information related to health should have a scientific basis. Mr Nobilia thought that the provisions of Article 4 were not formulated clearly enough. He was of the opinion that the Commission has only addressed 'bad diets' but not 'bad ingredients'. The rapporteur sought clarification on the relationship between the Commission and EFSA and whether the Member States would be sufficiently involved. Mr Nobilia questioned whether the restrictions under Article 11 were necessary if sufficient scientific evidence were to become the bottom line.
A harmonised legal framework is necessary for a fair competitive environment, said Patrick Coppens, the representative of the Confederation of the Food & Drink Industry in the EU (CIAA). However, Mr Coppens voiced fears that the proposal went further than that and was unduly restrictive. In particular, Mr Coppens thought that Article 4 could prove to be particularly counterproductive as it is not the composition but the use of a product that has a health effect. Mr Coppens said the CIAA was against the a priori prohibition of certain types of claims or categories of foods. Mr Coppens was opposed to overly tight control of the wording of claims. Manufacturers should be allowed to alter a message over time and according to social or cultural contexts, said Mr Coppens.
Beate Kettlitz from the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) said that the proposal was a very important one and more necessary than ever. Consumers at the point of sale have no way of checking the messages which appear on labels. Ms Kettlitz thought the introduction of nutrient profiles was a key part in the legislation which would eventually push the food industry to produce better foods. For the hearing in Parliament, BEUC published a brochure, entitled "Tell me what I am eating: food claims", listing dubious health and nutrition claims.
Four NGOs ( Euro Coop, the European Public Health Alliance, the European Heart Network and Euro Care) have urged MEPs to prioritise public health and consumer protection in future legislation on claims. "It is our firm conviction that nutrition and health claims should only be put on food products which constitute a healthier choice and which contribute to a healthier diet," say the four NGOs in a joint press release. In addition, the NGOs urge MEPs to ban claims directed principally at children.
In July 2003, the Commission adopted a new legislative proposal aimed at tackling unsubstantiated claims made on food. The aim of this new regulation is to provide consumers with better information based on scientifically sound data.
The proposal covers two categories of claims: nutrition claims (such as "rich in vitamin C" and "low in fat") and health claims (such as "good for your beauty and your inner harmony").
The proposal does not deal with cosmetics, medicine and pet food products. It only covers food products for human consumption.
The new Regulation will allow a category of previously prohibited group of claims relating to the reduction of disease risk.
Reference to and endorsement by doctors or health professionals will not be allowed. Health claims on alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of 1.2 per cent and above will not be permitted.
An important role will be given to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which will carry out the scientific evaluation of claims on the basis of proposals by food manufacturers.
- The legislative proposal is set be be adopted by Parliament in March 2004.