The functional food and beverage industry is being forced to endure an unwarranted PR disaster as a result of the way health claims are evaluated under the EU's Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation, industry leaders have warned.
Speaking after the publication of hundreds of new – and negative – Article 13.1 health claims opinions by the European Food Safety Authority, a group of three trade bodies urged the European Commission to review how claims were being assessed before enshrining negative opinions into law and banning them altogether.
In a joint statement, the European Federation of Associations of Health Product Manufacturers (EHPM), the European Responsible Nutrition Alliance (ERNA) and the European Botanical Forum (EBF) said: "Continued reliance in the assessment process on criteria which are unfeasible and inappropriate for the majority of claims, is contributing to the high number of negative EFSA opinions."
In addition Peter Van Doorn, EHPM chairman, indicated that the industry was starting to feel aggrieved at the high levels of negative publicity being generated in the media by the health claims regulation.
"The outcome of the process conveys to the public a message that the information provided by the European industry is of poor quality, while much of it is in fact the result of the process and the mismatch of what has been provided with expectations that only later became clear," he said.
"We strongly believe that a number of rejections are not justified. In many cases a full consideration of the totality of the evidence and an approach based on nutritional science would be able to arrive at more differentiated conclusions as a basis for the possible acceptance of certain claims."
Most claims rejected in fourth batch of opinions
This was EFSA's fourth batch of opinions on claims submitted under the Article 13.1 process, which is being used to draw up a Community List of claims that can be used by anybody. A total of 442 claims were addressed in 64 separate opinions in the latest group. As with the previous three batches, released in 2009 and 2010, most of these claims were found by EFSA to be unproven.
EFSA said: "As for previous evaluations, many of the unfavorable opinions in this series were linked to the poor quality of the information provided to EFSA. Information gaps included, for instance: the inability to identify the specific substance on which the claim is based; the lack of evidence that the claimed effect is indeed beneficial to the maintenance or improvement of body functions; or the lack of precision regarding the health claim being made."
There were some successes, including the relationship between walnuts and improved function of blood vessels, the antioxidant effects of polyphenols found in olive oil on LDL cholesterol, and the link between caffeine and alertness and increased physical endurance.
But the industry was again left dissatisfied by the outcome. Patrick Coppens, ERNA secretary general, said: "The EFSA approach has a number of weaknesses preventing the recognition of the health importance of many food components.
"We are observing a mounting concern by the scientific community, which may ultimately affect the credibility of the European system.
"Many claims, for example, are receiving negative EFSA opinions because the format used to submit them is not consistent with the format adopted by EFSA to assess them. This is the result of no guidance being available for industry on the submission of claims, and as a consequence EFSA has rejected many claims without assessing the evidence."