The European Commission is mulling the imposition of a stricter regulatory framework for health claims on food products, much to the consternation of British food manufacturers.

The debate over health claims on food products has centred on the divide between notions of pre- or post-market regulation. Currently in the UK, there is no official regulatory buffer zone that scrutinises health claims before products reach the market; it is up to consumers, advertising agencies and trading standards officials to police products already on the shelves and prosecute if claims are found to be misleading.

A number of recent rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority have upheld complaints against food producers that their health claims are misleading.

The functional food industry has boomed in recent years, and the UK Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, has defended this system. Spokeswoman Jackie Dowthwaite told the Financial Times that mandatory pre-market approval would only stifle manufacturers and delay product release. She maintained that the existence of a self-regulatory body called the Joint Health Claims Initiative has made independent regulation unnecessary.

Groups such as the Consumers’ Association are nevertheless concerned that food producers have too free a rein in offering health benefits on product labels, and many now argue for the need to harmonise rules on nutrition and labelling at EU level.

The European Commission directive has set a November deadline for the establishment of a clear benchmark to harmonise the claims. It has also suggested compiling a list of approved health claims.