The European Commission is still unable to say when the controversial nutrient profiling model in the EU health claims Regulation will be finalised, two years after food manufacturers were told it would be published.
The model, which is intended to prevent firms from making nutrition and health claims on foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar, was supposed to be completed in January 2009, but as with many other aspects of the Regulation, the timetable has slipped badly.
While the assessment process for health claims under the same Regulation has also taken far longer than planned, the uncertainty over nutrient profiles has not helped matters, as companies are already finding themselves in the situation whereby they know they will be able to make claims about plant sterols and cholesterol, for example, but do not know whether such claims will be permitted, say, on Cheddar cheese (because of its high fat content).
Similarly, while food manufacturers have been led to believe that some product categories could be excluded from profiling altogether, notably selected 'traditional foods', the Commission has yet to clarify which foods will be affected.
Intense political debate thwarts progress
Industry sources had been advised last autumn that the profiling system would be finalised by the end of 2010. However, EC Health & Consumer Policy spokesman Frédéric Vincent was this week unable to give FoodManufacture.co.uk any indication of when it would be finalised, despite three years of negotiations, adding: "I can't say."
The highly politicised nature of the task had not helped matters, he said: "Given the considerable political interest, the intense debate raised by nutrient profiles has delayed their adoption, initially foreseen by January 2009. The Commission has every intention to set nutrient profiles but cannot yet indicate when draft measures will be submitted to Member States in view of their adoption."
He added: "Commission services have been working on the setting of nutrient profiles since the receipt of the EFSA [European Food Safety Authority] opinion in January 2008. Since then, the Commission has held numerous meetings with Member States and with the interested stakeholders discussing potential nutrient profiles schemes and testing their feasibility and proportionality.
"Discussions within the Commission are still ongoing."
Nutrient profiling has proved a thorny issue for the food industry, with consumer groups generally supporting it but many manufacturers believing it to be fraught with practical problems or plain unfair on the grounds that it might prevent nutrient-rich but high-fat/salt products such as cheese from making health claims and reinforce the impression that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods (as opposed to good and bad diets).
It could also spell the end of products such as functional chocolate, as claims about the benefits of cocoa polyphenols or probiotics in chocolates are unlikely to be permitted under any profiling system unless products are extensively reformulated.
There are also technical disagreements over whether the system should compare all foods or judge them on a category-by-category basis, as well as whether to judge foods by portion size or by weight, while many firms argue that certain products should be excluded altogether.
Early drafts allow claims on 'obviously unhealthy' products
However, consumer groups feel that profiling will protect consumers by stopping manufacturers shouting about the health benefits of functional ingredients when they are added to products that are fundamentally unhealthy.
Which? chief policy advisor Sue Davies told FoodManufacture.co.uk that establishing a robust set of nutrient profiles was really important to enable shoppers to "assess whether foods are a healthy or less healthy choice relative to government dietary guidelines".
A question of trust
But it was also a question of trust, she argued. "Consumers should be able to trust that when they see a health or nutrition claim on a product, they are buying a genuinely healthy product. "
However, early drafts of the profiling model had not reassured consumer groups, she said. "The last official version we are aware of was from March 2009 and we were concerned that the criteria would allow some obviously unhealthy foods (even a doughnut) to carry claims."
Meanwhile, excluding certain products such as 'traditional foods' seemed to defeat the purpose of the system, she added. "We think that this confuses the issue. Whether or not a food is traditional is irrelevant as to how healthy it is."
However, other sources said that a blanket ban on claims on high-fat/salt/sugar products would not allow shoppers to differentiate between competing products within a category in which all products might be high in fat, but some were nevertheless lower in salt, or included beneficial nutrients.