Asda settles 'nasty' aspartame legal battle with Ajinomoto

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food

UK retail giant Asda has settled its long-running legal dispute with ingredient supplier Ajinomoto out of court, after the latter took legal action against the retailer for describing aspartame as a ‘nasty’ on own-label product packaging.

Ajinomoto Europe told sister publication FoodManufacture that it recently dropped it’s malicious falsehood claim against the retailer, which it initially pursued via a High Court action in 2008, after Asda refused to alter wording on own-label product ranges that described the high-intensity sweetener as one of several ‘hidden nasties’.

Asda ditches packaging

Asked for an update on the case, a spokeswoman for Ajinomoto (a major supplier of aspartame) said: “Ajinomoto Sweeteners Europe and Asda have settled their long-running dispute over the wording on the packaging of Asda's own-brand products that do not contain aspartame.

“Asda has confirmed that the products are due to be repackaged without any reference to aspartame, and in view of that, the aims of Ajinomoto Sweeteners Europe have been met and it has agreed to discontinue its claim.”

Asda won an initial High Court judgement in July 2009 (reported here​), however the case continued after an Ajinomoto appeal was upheld by the Court of Appeal last June, when judges agreed that, out of two possible meanings of the word ‘nasty’, Asda’s wording could lead people to understand that aspartame was potentially harmful or unhealthy.

Safe and beneficial

As recently as February, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that two recent studies linking aspartame with increased cancer rates and pre-term births “do not give reason to reconsider previous safety assessments of aspartame or of other sweeteners currently authorised in the European Union”.

So did Ajinomoto believe that the Asda case would lead to a more science-based approach to food marketing in future, given that the retailer justified its use of ‘nasty’ on the basis of consumer concerns, rather than scientific evidence?

The spokeswoman said that beyond the recent action, Ajinomoto “was and is standing up for its ingredients”​, and added that aspartame was “not just safe, but has a role to play in health challenges now facing consumers, and in a healthy, balanced diet”.

She said Ajinomoto’s rationale for action was, firstly, to stand up for its ingredients, and secondly to target widespread miscommunication, especially given, “a very robust science-based regulatory system … that we should rely on regarding how we communicate and reassure consumers on food safety”.

It was vital, she said, that food manufacturers and consumers understood the science behind the ingredients used in products, with “safe, beneficial ingredients”​ supported.

Science-based food marketing

Reacting to news of the settlement, Patrick Wall, associate professor of health at University College Dublin, and former EFSA chair said he hoped all stakeholders would learn lessons from the incident “and a more responsible science-based, approach to food labelling and marketing will result”.

"Certain consumers worry about additives and flavourings and consider E numbers are something evil, not realising that these are the numbers given to approved products which have had a favourable risk assessment from EFSA,​" he added.

Describing consumer confidence as a “fragile thing”​, Wall said spats between manufacturers and retailers “do nothing to inspireconfidence and only provide ammunition to those who denigrate all processed food as unhealthy”.

Another source, who wished to remain anonymous, responded to news of the legal settlement by saying that the Asda labelling issue was part of a wider move towards ‘clean label’ products “pedalled”​ by a food industry that “doesn’t understand the science and role of ingredients used for a long period of time”.

‘No nasties’ guarantee

Treating the initial order for trial of the case in March 2009, High Court judge Sir Charles Gray said that Asda began a campaign in May 2007 designed to ensure that, by the end of 2009, none of its own-label food and soft drinks would contain any artificial colours, artificial flavours, hydrogenated fat or flavour enhancers.

Gray said Asda launched the campaign via a press release trumpeting its“‘no nasties’ guarantee”​, where one the nasties was identified as aspartame, and went on to sell a wide range of own-label goods with packaging including ‘No hidden nasties’.

Beneath that heading, the judge said that one or other of a range of statements was used, such as ‘no artificial colours or flavours, no aspartame and no hydrogenated fat’ and ‘no artificial colours or flavours, no hydrogenated fat and no aspartame’. contacted Asda for comment but none was forthcoming.

Sandwich retail chain Pret A Manger also declined to comment on whether, in light of the settlement, it would change a website description of a mango & passion fruit drink, which states: 'This bottle of drink is full of nothing. It contains NO fat. There are NO weird unpronounceable chemicals, NO preservatives and NO aspartame. There are in fact NO nasties at all.”'

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