The world’s largest food manufacturer has raised concerns over the practical implementation of the new EU laws which will restrict the health-benefit claims food producers can make about their products.

Nestlé’s manager of group regulatory affairs, Eva Hurt, told a health foods conference in London this week that the lack of clarity surrounding the new regulations was already hurting businesses as they were unable to plan for their implementation effectively.

For instance, companies will be prohibited from making ‘comparative claims’ other than between foods of the same category. This will outlaw comparative claims between foods that are clearly in different categories, such as “This soup contains half the vitamin C of an orange”, but the exact definition of categories is still outstanding and will remain open to debate. For example, will it be possible to compare milk and yoghurt? Both are dairy but they take different forms and are not necessarily consumed in the same way.

The lack of a ‘transitional period’ for some of the regulations, notably the rules on children’s health, is also a cause for concern, and Hurt said that the food industry was lobbying for a transitional period and for advice from the EU on how to get claims accepted.

Hurt’s biggest concern surrounded EFSA resources, as she said that EFSA appeared not to have anything like the resources that would be necessary to handle the workload once applications for new health claims started arriving.

This was echoed by Guy Valkenborg, a lawyer with European Advisory Services. He argued that there were “only two solutions to the resource problem: either EFSA hires an awful lot of staff and ships them all to Parma, or authority for approving health claims is devolved back to the member states”. The latter path would prove to be a minefield as interpretation of the laws would be inconsistent and companies would inevitably seek to have their claim considered in the member state considered most flexible and/or fast.

Of most concern to both speakers at the Healthy Foods European Summit in London was the idea that the onerous, slow and expensive procedure for getting a new claim accepted would dissuade food makers, particularly smaller ones, from making any health claims at all and thereby stifle innovation.