EP News Report, 22 April 2005
For years Popeye had us believing spinach was rich in iron. But dieticians now know that this "health claim" is untrue or at least exaggerated. Many food products on sale these days claim to be "rich in vitamins", "low in cholesterol", or "light". True or false? And what does "rich" or "low" mean?
To prevent consumers being deceived and also to harmonise the internal market in these products, the European Commission is proposing to regulate the use of such claims. For example, any food described as having "no fat", must have no more than 0.5 grammes of fat per 100 grammes or 100ml. Another example: if a food product is described as "rich in protein", at least 12% of its energy value must come from proteins.
Members of Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety approved the general idea of regulating the use of such claims when they adopted a report at first reading on 21 April. The report, drafted by Adriana POLI BORTONE (UEN, IT), was adopted by 30 votes to 15, with two abstentions. But it includes significant amendments to key points of the regulation.
The European Commission believes that any nutrition or health claims should be based on a specific nutrient profile of the product in question. It says the profile should be established under the supervision of the European Food Safety Authority and, if a nutrition claim is being made, this must appear on the food label. MEPs voted against this idea. Many of them fear that this could discriminate against individual products, which would be classified as "good" or "bad". They believe it is not so much the composition of the product that matters as the use made of it and above all the balance of a person's diet.
Health not for sale
A large part of the regulation is devoted to the claims made for health foods. The Commission believes such claims should be based on scientific fact and should only be used after they have been duly authorised. MEPs are in favour of tougher scientific requirements but would prefer a simple notification procedure instead of one requiring authorisation. In other words, manufacturers or importers would inform the authorities if they planned to start selling a product making nutritional claims. It would then be up to the authorities to object or issue a ban within a nine month period.
The Commission also wants to ban certain health claims explicitly but MEPs would be less restrictive. They want to allow claims about weight (slimming or appetite control, energy values, etc.) and about the advice of health professionals, if these are scientifically substantiated. However, they would ban claims targeted directly at children, whereas the Commission says nothing on this subject.
Turning to the scope of the regulation, MEPs would explicitly exclude wine and publicity campaigns for agricultural products, which are already covered by other legislation, as well as brand names. Although the names of some brands in themselves hint at a nutritional benefit, these would not be affected if they have been registered in accordance with existing legislation.
Lastly, the committee adopted an amendment tightening up data protection. If producers have to reveal industrial secrets to comply with the scientific requirements, they will be protected by intellectual property law. In addition, to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses are not penalised by the new system, MEPs are calling for them to be granted special aid to help in preparing the documentation.