Food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt could yet be permitted to carry health claims after a European Union parliamentary committee adopted an amendment deleting nutrient profiling from the EU Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation.
German MEP Renate Sommer, a long-time opponent of using nutrient profiles in relation to health claims, proposed the amendment during discussions about a separate piece of legislation — the Food Information to Consumers proposal, which covers food labelling and has yet to be adopted. The amendment proposed axing Article 4 from the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation, this being the article that states the European Commission must develop nutrient profiles to restrict the types of products that can carry health claims.
Sommer's proposal has raised eyebrows, though not for the way she has gone about it. Although it might seem an unusual step, it is in fact legally acceptable in the EU for a new piece of legislation to contain an amendment that alters a regulation that is already in force — in this case the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation (NHCR), which was adopted back in 2006. Instead, what makes Sommer's move stand out is the fact that it is spiked with a heavy dose of controversy.
The reasoning behind using nutrient profiles in the context of the health-claims regulation is sound enough — that products high in salt, sugar or fat should not be permitted to carry claims that could suggest to consumers that such products are healthy. The system was conceived to prevent companies adding functional ingredients to junk foods and passing them off as nutritious.
However, the establishment of profiles has been a tortuous and contentious process. The fact that profiles were supposed to have been agreed upon by January 2009, and aren't anywhere near being finalised, illustrates the scale of the problem.
Critics such as Sommer, who has campaigned for years for the deletion of Article 4 from the NHCR, argue that the setting profiles for individual products outside of the framework of a balanced diet is arbitrary and unscientific. The establishment of nutrient profiles has also been compromised by vested interests. Intense lobbying by different member states and industry sectors — such as dairy and bakery — has led to numerous exclusions from profiles.
"They just could not agree," said Nigel Baldwin, senior scientific and regulatory consultant at Cantox International. "They had so many exemptions. Everyone had some sort of individual product they wanted to protect, and by the time they'd finished all of it, basically there was so much that was out that there wasn't much left in."
In mid-March, the European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee voted in favour of Sommer's amendment, and it will now voted on by all 700-plus MEPs in the week beginning May 17. The committee's endorsement of the amendment has dismayed consumer-rights groups, who see nutrient profiling as a way to protect shoppers from companies. Which?, a UK-based product-testing nonprofit, said Sommer's measure would pave the way for junk food to carry health claims, and revealed it had teamed up with the Danish Consumer Council to send MEPs and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso 'NUTRI-doughnuts' to underline their opposition to any move to delete nutrient profiling from the health-claims regulation.
Announcing the stunt, Which? chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith said: "When foods like jam doughnuts can make health claims, then it's time to go back to the drawing board. Ditching nutrient profiles is like throwing the baby out with the bath water as it paves the way for all manner of unhealthy foods to claim to have health benefits. The only way to address this is to keep nutrient profiles, but with more scientifically robust criteria to ensure that consumers aren't misled by foods making spurious health claims."
There is still some distance for Sommer's amendment to travel before it is adopted into law. For one thing, the Food Information Regulation, which would contain the amendment, is unlikely to be adopted until mid-2011 at the earliest. And to make it that far, it will have to pass several hurdles. The plenary vote in the European Parliament in the week beginning May 17 will only be the first reading. It will also have to undergo further readings in Parliament and scrutiny by the European Council. In the meantime, it's likely that the European Commission will continue to try to to draw up a nutrient profiling system, if only because it is legally obliged to do so.
Miguel Fernandes Silva, adviser at Brussels-based consultancy EAS, said it is hard to call which way the plenary vote on Sommer's amendment will go.
"What will happen, nobody knows, because the majority in the committee was very small," he said. "A lot of things could happen before the plenary vote. A lot of negotiations will take place, so some MEPs may be convinced to change their vote."