Researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University found that trading standards and environmental health officers are “acting more like advisers than prosecutors” when it comes to enforcing the existing regulations governing health and nutrition claims.
The study, published in PLOS ONE, looked at the role of regulation enforcers. It focused on claims like “high in fibre” or “heart healthy”.
The research was based on interviews with front line enforcers from UK local authority regulatory services. It found that when time-pressed local authority regulators apply the law relating to nutrition and health claims made for foods, officers gave advice – for which they sometimes charged a fee – to businesses on how to comply instead of taking enforcement action.
Many of the officers interviewed reported being subjected to increasing demands and additional pressures. This meant enforcing health claims was found to be low on the priority list of environmental health officers, whose responsibilities consumer law from dangerous toys, fake alcohol, under-age sales of tobacco and food hygiene.
‘A more lenient and accommodative approach’
Lead researcher Dr Ajay Patel, senior lecturer in food regulation law at Manchester Metropolitan, suggested that this was a significant shift from the “traditional view” of regulators.
“The traditional view of regulators as quick to resort to legal action has given way to a more lenient and accommodative approach in which they seek to ‘educate, persuade and cajole’ businesses.
“While providing advice is a reasonable and pragmatic response to achieving compliance, it should not hamper a regulator’s ability to take action nor should it create a conflict of interest where the enforcer provides the advice as a service for which it levies a charge.
“The roles of advisor and enforcer are distinct and where they overlap, enforcers need to exercise their discretion independently with an overriding duty to the public.”
Undermining shopper confidence
There has been a proliferation of health claims in the food industry – but very few examples of companies being prosecuted for breaching the rules.
The failure of enforcement officials to prosecute food companies that make inflated health statements raises the food fraud concerns of consumers, the researchers suggested.
Dr Patel added: “Of course, false claims don’t pose the same immediate risks such as death or illness from foodborne illness but multiple low level infractions present their own, often long term and latent detriment to consumers.
“While the regulation provides strong protection with the requirement for scientific evidence for the claim, the weak link is enforcement. Such claims are low priority and local regulatory services have borne the brunt of austerity, so it’s not entirely surprising.”
Source: PLOS ONE
‘A qualitative analysis of the enforcement of the regulation of nutrition and health claims made for foods and its implications for health’
Published online ahead of print: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0201178
Authors: Ajay Patel, Sumaiya Patel, Rebecca Gregg, Laura O’Connor