New labelling to oppose healthy eating?

Related tags Nutrition

Moves by the EU to introduce new health food labelling requirements
have been fiercely criticised by the food industry - with the
British Retail Consortium the latest to add its voice to the
debate.

European Commission proposals governing health claims on food labels have been a bone of contention for the food industry since even before they were unveiled back in July.

From the outset, the food industry in the UK has opposed the regulations, with the Food and Drink Federation​ there claiming that they will restrict consumer choice by preventing some manufacturers from making statements about the nutritional benefits of their products.

Now the FDF's strident opposition is being echoed by the UK retail trade, whose industry association, the British Retail Consortium​, this week claimed that the EU proposals would hamper the UK government's efforts to promote healthy eating.

The UK government is on a major drive to improve the health of the nation, promoting the consumption of fruit and vegetables through the 'five-a-day' scheme and encouraging individuals to do more exercise - both measures which have been broadly supported by the retail trade.

"Retailers believe that eating a balanced and varied diet are vital components to a healthy lifestyle,"​ the BRC​ said in a statement yesterday.

"It is with this in mind that the BRC has written to government departments and the Food Standards Agency to express its deep concern that proposed European Commission regulations will discourage the move towards healthier eating by outlawing the very signposts that consumers use to make healthier choices."

According to Richard Ali, director of food policy at the BRC, the European proposals would "decrease the visibility and choice of healthy eating alternatives by prohibiting the clear signposts our customers like to use"​.

The new rules would ban both healthy option branding and statements of fact such as 'contains 300 calories', Ali added. "We believe this could have disastrous consequences for healthy eating in the UK, which is why we have asked the FSA to intervene without delay."

Of course, the issue is not as clear cut as this. The proposals from Brussels would also ban the use of statements such as 'X per cent fat free' which the legislators consider to be misleading because they suggest that such products are in fact low in fat - not necessarily the case, they argue, because even a figure as low as, say, 3 per cent fat can be a lot, depending on the product.

But what the FDF and BRC are concerned about most of all is the ban on the use of behavioural claims - such as 'product X reduces the feelings of hunger' - even when there is scientific evidence to support the claims.

"If there is credible scientific evidence to back a claim, why shouldn't a manufacturer be able to make it?,"​ the FDF's Martin Paterson said back in July when the proposals were first unveiled.

The UK has not been the only country to criticise the proposals: the body which represents all of Europe's food and drink producers has also weighed into the debate.

"While we support the principle of establishing a harmonised regulatory framework encompassing all types of claims, including disease risk reduction claims, we strongly oppose any a priori prohibition of claims or exclusion of categories of foods from the possibility of communicating a nutrition or health benefit to the consumer,"​ the CIAA said earlier this year.

Quite why the retail trade is so concerned about this issue is harder to see - although of course most of the major UK retailers are also food producers, in that they sell an increasingly large selection of own label products, many of which also carry such claims.

Neither the food and drink industry nor the retail trade is particularly bothered whether its customers are obese or not, of course, despite all their protestations to the contrary. It could be argued, in fact, that keeping the nation concerned about their health is the best way to sell more high-margin products aimed at helping them reduce weight, sleep more easily or lower cholesterol.

With such divided loyalties, and the possibility of falling sales as a result of fewer label claims, the manufacturers and retailers are not perhaps the best source of unbiased information on this issue.

But neither is the industry entirely the villain of the piece. It is quite legitimate, for example, for food and drink producers to question whether well substantiated claims should be banned from product labels, and concerns that such tough restrictions could reduce innovation in the industry are also well founded.

The Commission's dilemma is that it is damned it does and damned if it doesn't. Faced with a growing consumer demand for healthy foods, legislators want to ensure that European citizens receive factually correct and useful information about the products they buy. But at the same time, they risk being accused of in fact reducing the level of information currently available - some, but far from all, of which is undoubtedly misleading - and making it harder for consumers to take the right decisions.

Related topics Food Safety & Quality

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