EU delays decision on food health claims


This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.

The European Commission has decided to delay a proposal regarding permitted health claims made on foods until the end of 2011, following concerns by industry and the incapacity of the European Food Safety Agency to deal with the submitted dossiers.

The list of permitted health claims was due to be published in January 2010, with regulation due to follow this autumn.

But the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is in charge of examining the scientific backing of the claims, is expected to finalise its assessment of submitted dossiers only by the end of 2011.

According to the Commission, the delays are due to late submissions and the large number of submitted dossiers – an initial 44,000 submissions which were later consolidated into a list of more than 4,600.

"To amend the process in a pragmatic way," the EU executive now plans to establish the list of permitted claims in two steps.

EFSA is being asked to finalise its evaluation of all remaining claims – other than so-called 'botanicals' – by the end of June 2011, after which the Commission will follow-up with legislative measures.

The claims regarding the botanicals – such as aloe vera, echinacea, ginseng or ginger and green tea extract – will be considered only after June 2011.

Competition concerns

The original regulation, adopted in 2006, foresaw the progressive adoption of the approved list and the progressive removal from the market of health claims that are not backed by science. 

But following concerns about potential market distortions between operators whose claims are rejected and those for which assessments are still pending, the list of permitted claims will now be published at once, the Commission said.

Food operators welcomed the European Commission's announcement.

CIAA, the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU, said the industry believes that the new approach "will improve the overall implementation process".

According to the CIAA, it will "create more legal certainty for manufacturers and reduce the implementation burdens incurred by multiple labelling changes" and "help in creating a level playing field vis-à-vis an appropriate timeframe for claim approvals, guaranteeing open and fair competition among food manufacturers in their use of health claims and thus helping stimulate innovation".

But UK consumer organisation Which? said it was not acceptable to leave consumers in the dark while the EFSA continued to assess the claims, particularly because a huge number of the claims analysed so far have been rejected. 

"So far, an incredible 80% of the health claims scientifically assessed have been rejected – this new timetable simply gives companies another nine months to bamboozle consumers, who will be left with no idea about which health claims they can trust," said Which? chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith.
"While no-one anticipated the vast number of claims that would need assessment, this announcement goes completely against the consumer-focused intention behind the legislation," he added.

Food packages often carry health or nutritional claims, such as 'reduces cholesterol' or 'low fat'. Some of these claims can be misleading to consumers who cannot interpret the more scientific nutritional tables.

EU legislation on health and nutrition claims made on food, which entered into force in July 2007, introduced procedures for the substantiation of claims and restricted the use of certain types of claim.

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