Flexibility is the key to the successful working of the European Union's draft proposal for Nutritional, Functional and Health Claims Made on Foods, according to the UK-based Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI).
The proposed legislation aims to establish a governing code for health claims on food labelling throughout Europe. It identifies four different levels of claim: 'functional', 'enhanced function', 'reduction of disease risk factor' and 'reduction of disease risk'.
The proposal is seen as necessary to increase consumer confidence in functional foods by supporting new products with valid health claims.
While welcoming the initiative, Melanie Ruffell, executive secretary of the JHCI, an independent claims assessment agency made up of consumer organisations, enforcement authorities and industry trade associations, highlighted some of the complexities the proposal must negotiate before it becomes law, by 2005 at the earliest.
She pointed out the difficulty of institutionalising pan-European claims in a multicultural, multi-lingual, nutritionally diverse market.
"What is proposed is one central body that does all of the assessments, both from the scientific angle and the application of that science. But there are so many local variations, not only in language and interpretation and translation but also dietary differences and cultural differences," she said. "That's why we would like to see some kind of devolved system where member states retain a certain degree of authority. The scientific link for health claims could be established at the Commission level but then each of the member states could decide how that science is applied within each language and in relation to their particular health issues.
"They have proposed a centralised system but the majority of the feedback the European Commission has received is that it is not terribly realistic to expect health claims to be effective in 22 countries when you may only want to market your products in one country."
Beate Gminder, spokesperson for health and consumer protection for the European Commission, said that a fully harmonised system would have to work centrally but that the EC respected each country's national laws.
"It would be up to the new European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to establish the science," said Gminder. "And then it will be up to the member states to interpret this and ensure claims are not misleading and that consumers are protected. We couldn't establish claims for each product."