Unilever has claimed victory in a dispute in Germany with a consumer watchdog over the company's Becel Pro Activ product.
The Higher Regional Court in Hamburg upheld an earlier ruling that had dismissed concerns at Foodwatch, the German consumer organisation, over a scientific claim Unilever was using to support the product, which the FMCG giant says helps lower cholesterol.
The dispute started in November 2011 when Foodwatch called into question the claim Becel Pro Activ margarine lowers cholesterol due to the inclusion of added plant sterols and argued there was scientific evidence the level of the ingredient could have side effects.
Unilever responded with a press release that contained a quote from Prof. Hans-Ulrich Klör of the University of Giessen, who said there was "from a scientific point of view no evidence" of side effects. Foodwatch took exception to the release and embarked on court action in January 2012. The lawsuit centred on the use of the quote and not on the safety or otherwise of Becel Pro Activ.
In October 2012, a lower court in Hamburg dismissed Foodwatch's complaint, prompting the organisation to launch an appeal. In Hamburg yesterday (1 September), the higher court supported the earlier judgment, defending the use of the quote on the grounds of freedom of expression.
"The Court of Appeal has confirmed the decision of the first instance: Foodwatch is the clear loser but, much more important, consumers have won," a spokesperson for Unilever's operations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland said.
Foodwatch said it was "very likely" it would appeal the judgement on the use of the quote at Germany's Federal Court of Justice, the Bundesgerichtshof.
Speaking to just-food, a spokesperson for Foodwatch said the organisation had made a submission to the European Commission for Brussels to remove its approval of Becel Pro Activ margarine – and other "yellow fat spreads with added phytosterol esters" as a novel food. The approval for food with added phytosterol esters was made in 2000. The organisation said there had been "numerous studies calling into question the safety of these products" since the approval was issued.
Foodwatch still contends there is a lack of evidence supporting the claim plant sterols prevent heart disease. In a statement, Foodwatch pointed to "a number of studies" it said suggested a high concentration of plant sterols "might cause what they are supposed to prevent: deposits in the blood vessels and thus an increased risk of heart disease".
Foodwatch also cited comments from Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in 2008. It said the BfR had stressed the consumption of food with added plant sterols by healthy people without a cholesterol problem "should be expressly avoided", citing potential health risks. Nevertheless, Foodwatch argues, Unilever insisted there was "from a scientific perspective no evidence" of side effects.
However, Unilever said yesterday "plant sterol-enriched" products like Becel Pro Activ "are a good way to reduce excessive cholesterol levels and thus to contribute to reducing a risk factor for cardiovascular disease".
Unilever pointed to a recent study commissioned by the European Atherosclerosis Society, which the company said confirmed the claim.
The FMCG giant also said over 70% of Germans aged over 45 have "excessive cholesterol" which the company said was "a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, the number one cause of death in Germany".
Unilever added: "These facts have been completely ignored in the context of a campaign that aims as usual to cause a scandal in the food industry, headlines and high-profile publicity for Foodwatch."