Mainstream press ‘exposed’ for health claim sensationalism
Industry will be hoping they don’t spread beyond the shores of Britain as they have massive potential to dent consumer confidence in healthy foods and healthy food messaging – and not always with the big picture represented as fully as it would be in an ideal world.
The Sunday Times contacted NutraIngredients.com last week seeking background on the EU health claims situation, something we gave willingly to provide as much information as possible on what is a very complicated area.
We highlighted the turmoil being created in the food and supplements industries because of EFSA’s tough health claims stance, and pointed out some of the issues industry has with aspects of the scientific assessment criteria being employed.
But the story (published yesterday and which can be found here) casts industry in a negative light, stating it has been “exposed” for making unsubstantiated claims and using suggestive language such as calling the regulation an “investigation” and an “inquiry”.
We’ve commented before about how damaging (not to mention inaccurate) mainstream sensationalism can be – just look at the recent Hydroxycut range in the US where negative media reaction to a contaminated supplement range has reopened a consumer (mis)trust can of worms.
Vitamin E copped a similar battering a few years ago when studies were misrepresented in the mainstream press – an event it is still recovering from to this day.
In this case, the cannibalistic nature of the UK press has been highlighted as the story has already gone a little viral by being picked up (with very little change) by two other major UK newspapers and the daily version of The Sunday Times. These papers have a readership of more than 10 million between them so the influence is palpable.
What can be done?
One of the aims of the 2006 nutrition and health claims regulation is to improve healthy foods messaging to give consumers confidence in product marketing.
A centralised and trusted EU-wide health claims list is also there to save companies marketing bucks in their business across many borders – the old EU promise of trade harmonisation.
Its intentions are good as it recognises that products which can deliver health benefits to consumers should be able to market those properties. And there are many such products that have already been recognised by EFSA.
The cholesterol-lowering potential of plant sterols and stanols and the potential of omega-3s to benefit infant development are just a couple of examples (not mentioned by the latest batch of stories).
But the details are proving a little rough, which is no surprise given the regulation in its inception was the most amended piece of legislation in EU food law history.
And this ambiguity in the process is damaging to those making, or seeking to make, EFSA-approved claims, as it is this very ambiguity that provides the fuel for the mainstream media to come charging into the fray and begin bellowing from the highest turret, town crier style, that health claims are being “exposed”.
And there’s the beef. The mainstream press, by its very nature, does not have the resources nor probably the inclination, to provide the kind of detail and perspective that is more the preserve of the industry journals such as this one. And so you get this kind of reporting.
But perhaps this kind of event provides an opportunity for industry to think about the manner in which it communicates its interests to the mainstream press.
At least one Scandinavian company sustained damage from its national TV press when a negative opinion came in from EFSA last year. Its sales suffered as a result, so the commercial fall-out is real and tangible.
But can industry be doing more to educate consumers about the positive aspects of the regulation such as the positive EFSA opinions that have been issued so far?
Groups like Consumers for Health Choice in the UK have been very proactive in the area but is enough being done? Could the way in which consumers are being made aware of the issues at hand and what is at stake with this process be improved?
Perhaps a way of getting the ball rolling could begin with the words: ‘Dear Editor of the Sunday Times…’
Shane Starling is the editor of NutraIngredients.com. He has been writing about the nutrition industry for almost ten years and knows how it feels to be misquoted.
If you would like to comment on this article, email: shane.starling’at’decisionnews.com
I read with interest your NutraIngredients article on the above. I strongly support your view.
I was interviewed by Jonathan Leake (The Sunday Times journalist) on Friday afternoon and made the following key points:
* The legislation was designed originally to stamp out unjustified health claims by the rogue elements of the industry – so it was now completely missing its target by concentrating on the big food manufacturers. The rogues were hardly likely to submit a dossier! The Unilevers of this world are actually trying hard to comply with very onerous requirements.
* That it was unnecessary to carry out a full clinical trial on foodstuffs. Foods are totally different to pharmaceuticals so a scaled down human intervention trial should suffice. This is clear in the EFSA guidelines (which are based on the PASSCLAIM study). I also pointed out that we do these studies at Leatherhead.
* That the whole process had become a bureaucratic nightmare because the system was too complicated.
I was annoyed with The Sunday Times article. It was very one-sided and didn’t mention any of my key points.
Dr Paul Berryman
Leatherhead Food Research
Randalls, Road Leatherhead, Surrey
I agree that it was an atrociously spun report – but that sort of sensationalist distortion is only to be expected. Even when a science correspondent has good intentions, the story gets ‘edited’ and the headline writers add their twist.
By all means write letters to the Editor of The Sunday Times but don’t hold your breath waiting for their publication. I have long past experience of trying to respond to false or misleading assertions therein. Typically one merely receives a printed card saying “Thank you for your letter. We are always glad to hear from our readers.” – and nothing is published.
Professor J Ralph Blanchfield, MBE
Past President, Institute of Food Science and Technology
Immediate Past President, International Academy of Food Science and Technology
Unbalanced articles like this are a shame for the thousands of nutritionists and research scientists world-wide, whether in private or public research institutes, but always working hard to improve continuously the quality of human and animal nutrition, to the benefit of everybody consuming them.
Why are the articles of some of these journalists, these ‘occasional specialists’ in 100 different subjects per year, not submitted to the same scrutiny as the scientific dossiers that are submitted to EFSA?
We should not underestimate their impact, as these articles are read by many people, not necessarily people with the correct background to judge and weigh the degree of misleading information they contain. Do they realise the impact of denying the progress that has been made in the field of nutrition, in identifying risks, in, for example, preventing damage at later age?
The worst part is: these articles do not even touch the real problem, which is often not the quality of the research provided nor the type of claims the food industry would like to make, but the uncertainty of the type of 'proof' requested by EFSA, a body struggling with too many dossiers and not so crystal-clear guidelines.
The 'specialist -journalists' should have asked EFSA about that.
I look forward to the publication of some positive examples of ‘How nutrition today can improve our health’.
Dr Bruno Pot
Institut Pasteur de Lille