Consumer group slams 'contains less' nutrition claims, MEP vote imminent

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

European consumers group, BEUC, claims the proposed “now 15% less” nutrition claim on foods, which is set to be debated by MEPs next week, is confusing and misleading for consumers.

Claims such ‘now with 15% less fat’ are currently not on the Health Claims Regulation's annex of permitted nutrition claims.

But a working document tabled last year by the EC on the revision of the annex of permitted nutrition claims included recommendations for a reformulation claim ‘now contains x% less’ fat/sugar/salt, etc (where x must be at least 15%, to be permitted for one year following the launch of the reformulated product).

In October the Commission's regulatory committee backed the additions to the nutrition annex and the measures now face European Parliament and EU Council scrutiny. The Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI) is set to debate the objection to the 'now contains X% less’ claim on Monday next and vote on it the following day.

The food sector argues that reducing calories and/or specific nutrients by 30% is difficult and that allowing food makers to advertise smaller reductions - as small as 15% - at least for a limited period of time (one year) would encourage them to reformulate their products.

Just a marketing tool, claims consumer group

However, Brussels-based consumer advocates, the BEUC, said it supports food reformulation but: “We expect it to be driven first and foremost by public health reasons and not ( just) used as a marketing tool.”

The group added that it will be difficult to restrict the use of claim “now X% less” to one year only: “Less scrupulous operators might be tempted to stop their efforts after a minor recipe change. We are also concerned that the claim “X% less” will mislead consumers.”

The consumer lobbyists said that ‘reduced”, “light in”, “low”…are some examples of the many nutrition claims EU food manufacturers can already use to communicate about their products’ nutritional composition.

“For most consumers, who are not aware of what these claims exactly mean in terms of nutrients contents, comparing products to make healthy choices can be a real challenge. The new “X% less” nutrition claim will only add to their confusion,”​ added the organisation.

Clearer communication

A spokesperson for the pan-European food and drink industry trade body, FoodDrinkEurope (FDE), told that the vast majority of FDE's members support the proposed claim because it is "key to communicating​" changes made to products to consumers.

"Communication by means of such claims provides food operators with an incentive to further invest in R&D, technology and innovation. As a result, members hope the Parliament will vote against the objection on 31 January,”​ said the FDE spokesperson.

The spokesperson for the FDE said its members support nutrition claims which ensure the consumer is informed of a specific nutritional benefit or that a nutritional improvement has been made to a recipe. “This was acknowledged by the member states and the Commission when they agreed to the proposal now before the Parliament,”​ said the FDE representative.

Commission view

Indeed, Frederic Vincent, a spokesperson for DG Sanco, the Health and Consumer Policy directorate at the European Commission, agrees. He told this publication that the: "Now contains X % less (energy, fat, saturated fat, sodium/salt and/or sugars)" is not a misleading claim. “It provides factual information on the new content in a nutrient or energy in a reformulated product,” ​he added.

Vincent said that to ensure consumers have all the information they need to appreciate the reformulation, products bearing such claims should clearly state the level of the nutrient or energy prior to reformulation, allowing the comparison in absolute amount with the current level indicated by nutrition labelling.

"Article 9 provisions on comparative claims apply when the comparison is made between products on the market and ensure a fair comparison. The new claim "now contains X% less" is information on the new recipe of a given product. The reference product is not anymore on the market and there is no choice between the old and the new recipe,"​ he explained.

Vincent said that the one year time limit is proposed to stimulate step by step improvements. "It is estimated as the time needed to introduce a new recipe on the market and to get it known by the consumers,"​ said the Commission's spokesperson.

Step wise approach to reformulation

The nutrition claim “reduced in X” currently enables food manufacturers to communicate about reductions compared to a range of foods of the same category, said the FDE.

However, continued the food industry representative, manufacturers would also like to be able to communicate to consumers on smaller, incremental reformulations easy to control by comparing the old and new recipes. “A step-wise approach to reformulation is often necessary from a technological standpoint and to accommodate gradual change in consumer taste. In this regard, it must be noted that difficulties remain for manufacturers reformulating their products,”​ she explained.

The spokesperson added: “It would be clear for the consumer that the ‘now contains X% less” claim is made vis-à-vis the previous recipe because the Commission proposal stipulated that the level of the reduced nutrient before reformulation would need to be clear on pack. We believe that this ensures the consumer will not be misled.”

Barbara Gallani, the Food and Drink Federation's director of food safety & science, echoes those sentiments: “We strongly support the addition of the X% less claim to the nutrition annex. We don't agree that it is confusing for consumers. It would allow some companies to make incremental reductions of certain nutrients, whilst at the same time communicating these changes to consumers.”

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