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New food laws must overcome scepticism, says lawyer

By staff reporter , 22-May-2006

Following plans in Europe to harmonise health claims in food labelling, experts at Eversheds law firm claim any new rules will have to overcome historical scepticism to be truly effective.

Members of the European Parliament have approved new rules to govern health claims on food. The new measures will bring clear definitions for the food industry to regulate claims that foods have a health or nutritional benefit, such as low fat, high fibre or reduced cholesterol.

There are also plans to harmonise rules on the addition of vitamins and minerals to foods across Europe.

"The fierce debate about informative, simple and harmonised labelling of foodstuffs has raged for many months now and the attempts to produce a harmonised EU regime covering nutritional and health claims is not unexpected," said David Young, partner in the Food Sector Group at Eversheds.

But in a field more regulated than most, even the Food Standards Agency is believed to be sympathetic to the less is more message when it comes to further regulation. Young said that whether the proposals do ultimately deliver a harmonised system remains to be seen.

He believes that the EU will have to deal with some historic scepticism about uniformity of application, and the period of introduction of any new rules, with exemptions and the sheer detail of the rules, is likely to be challenging for manufacturers, distributors, retailers, consumers and the enforcement agencies.

"Its important that we don't all lose sight of what were trying to achieve due to over-zealous enforcement or a lowest common denominator approach to rule-making that assumes consumers are not very capable of understanding labelling information," said Young.

"All agencies need to recognise the challenges that these rules - like any major change - will mean for food businesses, and we hope that we will see a partnership approach which the Government indicated was its preferred approach with its own Health Bill."

Many sectors of the food industry however have welcomed the proposed changes, recognising them as reflecting consumer demand.

"CEEREAL would like to congratulate parliament on its vote," said Phil Ruebotham, president of the European Breakfast Cereal Association.

"This compromise is a win-win for European consumers and industry."

Ruebotham was pleased that parliament members supported a compromise package on nutrient profiles, the approval procedure and the trademark issue. CEEREAL said that it fully supported parliament's final position on fortification, which is based on safety.

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