All of a sudden, years of Brussels debate have come close to agreement on what will be the most important European measure ever for food labelling and advertising. Both nutrition and health claims are deeply affected.
Topic: Food Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation looms
Who: The European Parliament
When: Late May 2006
The European Parliament approved a "Regulation on nutrition and health claims made on foods." The measure now moves to the Council of Ministers where it is expected to be formally adopted by Autumn 2006. The Regulation will then enter into force within 20 days after publication in the Official Journal.
This means that bearing in mind the "direct effect" of EC Regulations, without any need for national transposing legislation, the Regulations may well be in force, across Europe, well before the end of 2006.
There is no need to panic just yet: there are transitional provisions for claims in existence which allow nutrition claims in existence to remain in use for two years, while use of existing health claims can continue for three years.
The grand ambition is that European consumers will be able to rely on the truth and accuracy of information on food labels and that there will be a level playing field for food manufacturers wanting to make health and nutrition claims.
The legislation has two broad thrusts.
Use of "low fat" etc to be tightly controlled
Firstly it targets 24 popular nutrition claims such as "low fat," "high fibre" and "reduced sugar" and lays down strict conditions for their use.
Set thresholds will have to be met before such claims can be made. For instance:
- "high fibre" foods must have at least 6g of fibre per 100g
- "low sodium/salt" foods must be less than 0.12 g. of sodium per 100g/100ml
- "low sugar" foods must contain less than 5g of sugar per 100g.
- "very low sodium/salt" foods must have less than 0.04g sodium/salt.
- "reduced salt" foods must have salt levels cut by at least 25%
- "reduced fat" or "reduced sugar" products must have had the relevant levels cut by 30%
- "source of protein" will only apply to foods that derive 12% of their energy from protein.
Any nutritional claims that are not listed cannot be made, end of story.
Nutritional profiling threat
A further twist for nutritional claims is that even if the claim is one of the listed 24 and meets the requirements for that claim in isolation, it may still be forbidden to make it if it fits a certain nutritional profile. These profiles are to be set within 24 months of the Regulation entering into force, by the European Food Safety Authority ("EFSA").
These profiles will deal with the quantities of nutrients and other substances in the food. It will also indicate the role and importance of the food in the They will ensure that if a food is particularly high in for example fat and sugar, it will be regarded as so unhealthy that it will be misleading to say it is "low in salt" even if this is true.
Limited relaxation for "one unhealthy level" foods
There is a limited relaxation of this rule. This will apply where the food is above the limit of the nutritional profile in only one respect, for instance sugar. In such cases, a nutrition claim will still be allowed in respect of low fat content. However this is on condition that the high sugar level is clearly marked on the label, close to and with the same prominence as the "low fat" claim.
As regards nutrition claims on alcohol products, these are banned completely unless they refer to a reduction in alcohol or calories.
Health claims thrust
The second main thrust of the legislation is at health claims. Here two claims will be banned altogether, those referring to rates or amounts of weight loss and those referring to the product being recommended by doctors.
It will still be acceptable, however, to claim that a product can help lose weight.
Separately as regards health claims, the Commission will draw up a list of well-established claims such as "calcium is good for your bones." It will be permissible to use these on labels so long as they are proven to apply to the food in question.
Member states are required to submit a list of health claims that they have already approved at national level. Within three years of the Regulation coming into force, the Commission must then publish a list of all approved health claims. After that, any food manufacturer wanting to make a health claim that is not on the list such as "[Brand X] lowers cholesterol" or "calcium helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis" will have to submit it to EFSA for examination and approval by the Commission and Member States.
Trade marks not immune
A similar approach will apply to trade marks. Within 15 years of the Regulation coming into force, existing brand names suggesting health benefits such as promises of weight loss that do not meet the Regulations' requirements must be phased out and taken off the market.
Health claims that are allowed must be qualified with accompanying information. This must show
- the importance of a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle
- the quantity of the food and pattern of consumption needed to obtain the claimed benefit
- persons if any who should avoid consuming the food
- health risks presented by consuming the product to excess.
Forbidden are claims which
- suggest that health could be affected by not consuming a food product;
- refer to the alleged rate or amount of weight loss or
- cite individual recommendations of doctors and health professionals.
Why this matters
This is undoubtedly the most important EU measure to date affecting on-pack claims in the food sector. It will also extend beyond labels to advertising and any other presentation of foods intended for the consumer, including foods that are placed on the market unpacked or supplied in bulk. Also covered will be foods intended for supply to restaurants and other mass caterers.
Nearer the time when the Regulations are due to come into force, the Food Standards Agency will publish guidance for UK manufacturers and retailers. These will likely offer marketers help on how to put together a scientific case for a health claim to go before the EFSA and help with interpreting the rules.