The recent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conference gave food companies the opportunity to voice their concerns over incoming EU regulation of nutritional and health claims on labelling. Andrew Cave reports from Bologna.

The intense concerns felt by the European food industry over the incoming European Union (EU) regulation on nutritional and health claims on labelling were aired at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conference which took place in Bologna last week.

The opening day of a three-day meeting allowed delegates from major food companies and key regulators to debate the regulation, which businesses still want reformed before it comes into force. Numbers were limited to 200 delegates from government, trade associations and companies including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Tesco, Kellogg and Cadbury Schweppes.

Andreas Kadi, EU scientific and regulatory affairs director at Coca-Cola and chairman of the taskforce for new claims regulations at European food and drink industry confederation CIAA, voiced two main concerns.

Kadi is worried about Article 13 of the new regulations, which will involve the establishment of an official EU list of health claims that are based on generally accepted scientific evidence and are well understood by consumers. Products that are not on the list will have to go through a separate claims authentication procedure. “We are concerned that all those claims that should go on the list really do go on the list,” says Kadi.

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Secondly, Kadi has expressed concerns about the nutrient profiling requirements of the new legislation. Nutrient profiles that define the basic criteria food should comply with to be considered suitable for a health claim are being established, based on scientific advice from EFSA. The idea is that nutrient profiles will guarantee that only reliable and scientifically sound claims are made, so that consumers are not misled and can make choices that lead to a healthy balanced lifestyle.

However, Kadi is worried that some groups of food and drink producers will not be allowed to make health claims. “Those that do not qualify will be allowed to make nutritional claims,” he says. “But they will have to include a statement that they are not making a health claim. It could say that a product contains vitamins but at the same time it has a high fat content. What we are very concerned about is that such a nutrient profile really has a scientific basis because a lot of the discussion around profiling as the legislation was being proposed was highly political.“

The CIAA maintains that the health credentials of individual products need to be appreciated in the context of a complete balanced diet. “In the CIAA’s view, when you talk about nutrients, you have to put that in the context of a balanced diet,” Kadi says. “It’s not just about looking at one product or one meal. It’s about the daily, weekly or monthly diet. The problem with profiling is that it looks at foods in isolation. You might have a problem with olive oil because it is 100% fat but there are positive health elements of using olive oil. You have to see the whole picture. People don’t drink olive oil by the glass. It has to be seen in context.”

Other details that emerged at the conference reinforced Kadi’s concerns. Sirpa Sarlio-Lanteenkorva of the Finnish Food Safety Authority revealed that in Finland alone, 600 food and drink products have already applied to be put on the Article 13 list.

Robert Vanhoorde, head of the science and stakeholder relations unit of the European Commission, believes it is important that room is left for scientific evidence of health benefits to emerge. “If we only allowed claims that are based on strict evidence, we would not have allowed claims for the benefits of folate products in protecting the neural tubes of unborn babies ten years ago,” Vanhoorde said. “It was not so proven then.” Allowing potential health claims to be publicised meant that research and development funds were directed towards gaining more evidence of the benefits.

Melanie Ruffell of the Joint Health Claims Initiative, which runs Britain’s voluntary system of health claims regulation, said health claims needed to be precise and not misleading, pointing out that it would take 34 servings of a particular Omega3 supplement to provide the same Omega3 benefits as those supplied in a piece of fresh salmon. “What we have found,” she said, “is that it is very difficult to do this because one size does not fit all.”

Consumer groups will make sure there is pressure on EFSA and the Commission to make the implementation of the new regulations as watertight as possible. Among the consumer groups to have voiced concern over nutritional claims is the Brussels-based European consumer group BEUC. “Our biggest concern is that the legislation is implemented in a way that means it is going to be effective,” says the BEUC’s Barbara Gallani. “You could have a margarine that has 30% fat instead of 80% and markets itself as ‘reduced fat’ but 30% is still a very high fat content. It is healthier than the other option but it is not a healthy product.”