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Government needs to improve health claim process, NNFA says

Health claims approved by the Food and Drug Administration are frequently wordy, confusing, too negative and untimely, the National Nutritional Foods Association wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to the FDA.

The NNFA letter was in response to an FDA request for comments on consumer perceptions of health claims. NNFA Chief Executive David Seckman and President David Taylor wrote that health claims could be more effective marketing and consumer-education tools if the FDA were willing to make some changes to how the claims are written and approved.

They cited data from the Natural Marketing Institute's "2004 Health & Wellness Trends Database," showing that 61 percent of consumers think it's important that foods have health claims, but pointed out that "the verbiage adopted by FDA for both the full and qualified health claims has resulted in an underutilization of this type of information."

The letter said manufacturers frequently don't apply for health claims because they find the FDA's health claim language "cumbersome and conflicting," and the disclaimer language "unhelpful to consumers." The letter also noted that some manufacturers believe the science used to evaluate a health claim is standardized rather than reflective of all the studies for a specific product or ingredient.

In addition, "We think manufacturers have been hesitant in the past to submit health claims because the evaluation process is so long—up to a year, if not longer," Seckman said in an interview after the FDA letter was submitted.

Seckman said the FDA needs to make health claims a priority, adding additional staff if necessary to evaluate health claims in a timely fashion. An FDA spokesman said, "We try to staff that area as adequately as possible," but pointed out that sometimes companies submit "many, many" health claims in one petition, so it takes longer to evaluate those petitions. The FDA's budget for increased staff is still being determined, but the spokesman said health claim evaluation is a priority.

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