Speaking to EU agriculture ministers last month, commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis reportedly said it may be necessary to “consider whether adjustments might be needed to the current rules governing the use of health claims, in particular as regards nutrient profiles and the use of health claims on the so-called botanicals”.
Responding to the hint in a letter to the Commissioner, BEUC said such adjustments should ensure that “consumers aren't misled by foods making spurious health claims and confirm the European Commission commitment towards better regulation and evidence based policy making”.
In particular the consumer group urged the Commission to establish nutrient profiles for foods allowed to carry health claims – something it said would stop ‘health halos’ over confectionery, snacks, sugary beverages fortified with nutrients.
It also said the Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should not grant exception to the “no data, no claims” principle for botanicals.
Any changes would come as part of the REFIT programme, the Commission’s assessment of whether current regulation was fit for purpose. It aimed to make EU law simpler and reduce regulatory costs, which it hoped would contribute to a clearer, more stable regulatory framework and support growth and jobs.
Health claims encouraging obesity?
Yet consumer groups have expressed concern that this bureaucratic clear-out may be influenced by industry and put consumers at risk.
BEUC communication officer Elisavet Sergiadou told us: “Making laws better is a laudable approach but there is a risk it might lead to an unbalanced cutting of red tape.”
Instead, BEUC said the Commission should be looking to “uphold and reinforce” the existing legislation by developing a nutrient profiling system, something which was actually required by the 2006 EU Health and Nutrition Claims Regulation (HCR).
The initial deadline for this was 2009 but six years on and little progress has been made.
BEUC outlined nutrient profiles as one of its key priorities in its proposition paper back in February.
Since then the World Health Organisation (WHO Europe) released a report on nutrient profiles and restricted marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
In its letter, BEUC called these nutrient profiles “ambitious and high quality” and said it showed how different countries could work together to classify foods.
It said it supported the health claims regulation, but this support was inextricably linked to the notion of nutrient profiles.
“Without nutrient profiles health and nutrition claims can appear on confectionery, snacks, sugary beverages etc. which are high in sugar, fat or salt and can contribute to excess energy intake and drive the global obesity epidemic, especially among children,” the organisation’s director general Monique Goyens wrote.
No data, no claims
Andriukaitis’ hint on botanicals also spurred the group to emphasise its concern over the possibility of a parallel evaluation system for botanical claims based on traditional use not the hefty scientific demands made on other nutrients.
“We do not believe that grandmother wisdom warrants consumers wasting money on products making false health promises. We expect the Commission not to shy away from protecting consumers from misleading botanical claims,” Sergiadou said.
There are currently about 2000 botanical health claims stuck in EU food law limbo awaiting clarification on the kind of evidence needed to prove efficacy.