The European Union has officially adopted into law a controversial Article 14 health claim linking DHA in infant formula with the normal development of eyesight in babies – despite a rebellion by a group of left-wing MEPs.
The claim – "Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake contributes to the normal visual development of infants up to 12 months of age" – was adopted in early May alongside two others also concerning omega-3s and infant health, and a fourth that was rejected.
The contentious claim, originally approved by the European Food Safety Authority in March 2009, was attacked by pro-breast feeding groups for encouraging the use of infant formula to feed newborns.
Campaigners won the support of four Socialist MEPs, who drew up a resolution opposing adoption of the claim. But in April the motion was narrowly defeated in a vote in the European Parliament, and on May 6 the claim entered the EU law books.
So what does this episode tell us about the willingness – and the ability – of MEPs to exercise their right to block the adoption into law of approved and rejected health claims under the EU’s Health Claims Regulation?
Nathalie Wood, food regulation and policy manager at Brussels consultancy EAS, says it demonstrates that MEPs are "not hesitating to use their powers of veto." In reality, however, she says that the chances of a successful move to block the adoption of a health claim opinion is hindered by one thing – good, old-fashioned politics.
Under EU law, a qualified majority is required to defeat a proposal in the European Parliament. In other words, half of the total number of the MEPs, plus one, must back a decision to veto. Translated into votes, this means 369 votes in favor of a block.
In the case of the DHA claim, the European Parliament gained only 328 votes in favor of blocking the claim, with 323 votes against blocking the claim and 26 abstentions.
But Wood says: "A qualified majority is a difficult number to achieve given the composition of today’s European Parliament, which is more fragmented than ever before, with smaller parties now occupying a larger share of seats, which were previously in the hands of the three biggest political groups: the center-right, the Socialists and the Liberals.
"The result is that where the center-right political group could in the past align its position with the Liberals and easily reach a qualified majority, today such an alignment would still see a shortfall of 20 votes for a qualified majority."
She continues: "It is not uncommon for the center-right and Liberals to join forces on economic and internal market issues. The same is the case for the Socialists political group, but it is perhaps even worse with this group having suffered the biggest defeat in the last elections. If it aligned its position with the Liberals, it would still need to find at least 101 additional votes from other political groups to get the backing required to block a proposal."
Despite these challenges, reaching a qualified majority is not impossible, says Wood, as was demonstrated in April last year when MEPs made up the necessary numbers to block another Socialist-led resolution that was attempting to veto a Commission decision to allow 'meat glue' additives.
"In this case both the center-right and Liberals were split,” she says. “For the European Parliament to successfully block a Commission draft proposal, therefore, requires the support of a very broad cross-section of MEPs spanning across different political groups."
All four of the infant health claims referred to in this story can be viewed here.