Industry none the wiser over EU nutrient profiling

Companies face ongoing health-claims uncertainty, expert warns

EUROPE Suppliers of wellness foods remain 'in the dark' about which products are likely to fall into the European Union's nutrient-profiling system. That's the view of international food and nutrition consultancy EAS, which said the recent opinion on the subject issued by the European Food Safety Authority had done "little to address industry concerns because it neither proposes a specific profiling system nor makes any precise recommendations."

This is a crucial issue for all manufacturers of foods that offer health-and-wellness benefits. The nutrient-profiling system in question will be used to decide which products can and cannot carry claims under the European Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation. Products high in fat, salt and sugar could face restrictions on — or be banned totally from — carrying claims.

The European Commission will draw up the nutrient-profiling system to categorise food according to their nutrient content, and had asked the EFSA to provide advice on how it should go about it. But this advice, issued at the end of February, shed little light on how nutrient profiling would work in practice. Instead the EFSA, which is based in Parma, Italy, suggested certain food categories could be excluded from nutrient profiling altogether — or alternatively be set different nutrient-profiling parameters — to reflect their significance in the diet, even if products in these categories tended to be higher in fat, salt and sugar. Examples might be dairy products and breakfast cereals.

"A nutrient-profiling scheme could be applied across all foods with a limited number of exemptions for specific food groups that play an important role in various diets," said the EFSA. "These exemptions, if necessary, could take the form of specific profiles to ensure some products in these groups are eligible to bear claims."

EAS adviser Miguel da Silva, said: "There were a lot of expectations regarding the EFSA's opinion, with many curious to know what it would recommend: whether profiles should be set for foods in general or per category; which nutrients should be taken into consideration, should the scheme be based on thresholds or on a complicated scoring system, per 100g or per portion, and so forth. In the end, the EFSA's opinion does not answer most of these questions."

For more information on this, listen to Miguel da Silva's podcast here.

The best move for industry would be to closely follow the immediate next steps in the development of the profiles, Da Silva said. While companies would be well advised to evaluate their product portfolio for potential challenges, such an exercise would nevertheless have to be based on speculation. "One would have hoped that the EFSA's opinion would provide more clarity or at least some preliminary indications on what the future scheme would look like," he said. "However, this is not the case, so no one can really predict today what the commission will propose."

There is also continuing uncertainty for suppliers of dietary supplements. Although the regulation will cover such products, they were not listed by the EFSA among the suggested exemptions in its opinion. The commission is expected to hold a consultation with member states and stakeholders in the course of this year. The nutrient-profiling system is expected to be established in 2009.

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