The much-discussed EU regulations on nutrition and health claims came into effect at the beginning of this month, but there are few signs of the debate ending there. Consumer groups are concerned that the legislation does not go far enough, David Haworth reports, while there are concerns that the regulations may inadvertently inhibit the communication of generalised health messages associated with food.

Without fanfare, the EU regulations on nutrition and health claims came into effect at the start of July, beginning a significant shake-up of the EU food sector, which will take 15 years to complete.

The law lays out binding EU-wide definitions of recipe formulation for low fat, low salt and low sugar within food packaging labels and advertising. From now on misleading claims such as “70% fat free” will also be banned.

Any product declared to be a “superfood”, especially breakfast cereals and fruit juices, will also fall foul of the new regulation unless the claim can be scientifically proved to the satisfaction of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Such a law will impose duties on food manufacturers, but far from complaining about the law, the European Food and Drinks Confederation approves of the European Commission’s crack-down. “We’re always being accused of wanting self-regulation instead of binding laws, but we very much welcome the claims regulation,” an official said. “It should now be easier to make claims across the EU and consumers will easily know that they can have confidence in the claims.”

However, some consumer groups have not been so accepting, suggesting that the measures do not go far enough in protecting consumers. “The Commission’s nutrition claims measures are disappointing, unambitious and minimalist especially in relation to obesity and other diet-related diseases,” says Jim Murray, outgoing director of the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC).

Murray is concerned that much of the work in gradually achieving the goals set out by the EU’s executive body will in fact fall to the next Commission towards the end of the decade, not this one.

Furthermore, as the BEUC’s food expert Cees de Winter points out, although existing brands which suggest health benefits (such as promises of weight loss) but don’t meet the requirements of the regulation will have to be removed from the market, there will be a grace period of some 15 years.

This transition time was agreed by the Commission after strenuous food industry representations that it was necessary to make changes in product branding. It means that the biggest change will not be noticed by consumers until the end of the decade and beyond.

For many well-established functional health claims, such as “calcium may be good for your bones”, the Commission has begun to draw up a positive list on the basis of claims submitted by member states. These claims will be permitted to feature on any label as long as the producer can verify the link between the claim and the product and the food complies with the nutrient profiles.

“It’s crucial that these claims will be based on the best science,” de Winter says, pointing out that most EU countries have started collecting lists of claims which they will submit to the Commission for onward reference to EFSA.

In this regard, de Winter believes the law to be something of a mixed blessing, noting that on the one hand the regulation will give customers a real certainty that product health claims are authentic, but on the other may have the unintended consequence of eliminating such incontrovertible messages as “calcium is good for growing kids”.

Kevin Hawkins, director-general of the British Retail Consortium , said shortly before the regulation came into force: “Our concern isn’t about the principle of this legislation. It’s right that “good for your heart” is supported by science, but customers must not be denied nutrition and health messages they find valuable.”

He fears it could unintentionally thwart health campaigns and compromise the introduction of healthier products. For that reason he wants the regulation to be kept under review for the next few years and adjustments negotiated with the Commission where they may be necessary.

Nutrition claims for children’s foods are in a separate category, Hawkins points out. Every claim has to be individually authorised, so manufacturers and retailers may be reluctant to go to the trouble.

Furthermore, the regulation makes it harder for manufacturers to make their products healthier because “reduced salt” or “reduced sugar”, for example, can only be claimed if the products’ content is between 25% and 30% less than a previous product which may still be available. This, said Hawkins, does nothing to help consumers make healthier choices.

Over time, of course, and with more experience of the legislation’s effect, a better balance between manufacturers’ interests and those of the public will probably evolve. There are already indications that some major manufacturers are willing to meet the regulators half way.

“Superfoods” are going to have the greatest difficulty under the new regulations. This term was first coined in the US around 17 years ago to describe products which are particularly good for the health. But there is still no definition of what superfoods and superfruits should be able to claim. This is an area of potential post-regulation conflict between producers, the European Commission and EFSA.

But these wheels will grind slowly. EFSA has until next March to propose maximum levels for salt, fat and sugar in any products which make nutritional and/or health claims.

The authorities will then have until 2009 to approve nutritional profiles. Those products that fail to come up to scratch will have a further two years (2011) before they are obliged to be withdrawn.