End to 'vague and meaningless' health claims

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Health claims, Consumer protection, Nutrition, Europe

The 21st century must rebalance the excesses of the 20th century -
from pollution to food. This month there were visible signs that
Europe is trying to get to grips with the labelling of
health-related products with the Commission tabling tough rules on
health claims.

The 21st century must rebalance the excesses of the 20th century - from pollution to food. This month there were visible signs that Europe is trying to get to grips with what critics may call the 'grey area' of labelling of health-related products with the Commission tabling tough rules on health claims.

The European Commission has proposed new measures that would establish a clampdown on the health claims made about food products. The European body wants all claims about the benefits of food to be backed up by solid science.

As the trend towards health-boosting foods continues on its upward curve, and after years of lobbying for much-needed pan-European health claims, the proposals have not been warmly received by the food industry.

Europe's food industry trade body, the Confederation of EU Food & Drink Industry (CIAA), was quick to criticise the regulation, warning that restrictions could hamper trade and 'the food and drink manufacturers' ability to communicate health benefits to consumers'. The body encouraged EU legislators to pursue their "goal of stimulating innovation in the food sector".

So what are they up in arms against? Essentially, everything that is not expressly authorised by the regulation will be banned. This reverses the current position where everything that is not expressly prohibited is permitted with the proviso that the consumer is not misled.

Under the proposed rules, 'vague and meaningless' claims will be banned as well as potentially misleading terms such as "90 per cent fat free" and "reduces your calorific intake".

Strict rules would also be in force for the use of terms such as "fat free", "no added sugar" and "high fibre".

Defending the proposals earlier this month, EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne said: "Any information about foods and their nutritional value used in labelling, marketing and advertising which is not clear, accurate and meaningful and cannot be substantiated will not be permitted."

Present day European rules demand that food manufacturers have to reveal the full ingredients to consumers on labels but laws regulating the use of claims - such as "low fat" or "high fibre" - are less than clear.

But not all were disheartened by the proposals. Jim Murray, director of the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) called the draft a 'very good proposal' adding that that it should help 'to ensure that consumers will have better and clearer information about the food they eat including, we hope, products that are eaten mainly by children.'

In the UK, Sue Davies, of the Consumers' Association, said: "These proposals will tackle this confusion once and for all so that consumers will no longer be handing over money for products without the guarantee that they will deliver the health benefits they promise."

By providing the consumer with more information, the proposed changes to labelling would certainly alter consumers' perceptions of the health benefits of their favourite foods. But for the food industry, if the new rules are passed, even the brands of some of Europe's biggest food companies - take Danone's successful Actimel product - could be affected.

The new legislative draft will be forwarded to the European Parliament and the Council, with a view to entering into force by 2005.

Related topics: Science

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