Defining Health Claims For Europe

As more products are advertised and marketed across borders, the harmonisation of European health claims is vital. This was the conclusion from the second European Health Claims Forum in Frankfurt in September. Jane Smith reports.

This year's conference addressed major claims issues and highlighted developments over the previous 12 months. Specific national rules of interpretation, emerging Codes of Practice such as the Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) in the UK, priorities for industry, principles for the scientific substantiation of claims and European regulatory proposals were just some of the topics under discussion.

Chairman Neville Craddock focused on the content of current legislation in Directive 65/65/EEC and 2000/13/EC in relation to health claims, examined the proposed changes to 65/65 and reviewed European Court of Justice decisions of relevance. A paper from Leatherhead Food RA, examined some of the products in the UK that have run into problems with advertising regulation authorities and highlighted the important role of advertising codes in health claims as well as industry claims.

Melanie Ruffell and Professor Nils-Georg Asp reviewed the progress of Swedish and British Codes of Practice on health claims. Ruffel indicated that following on from the work of the JHCI Expert Committee, the first generic claim for saturates and blood cholesterol was expected to be placed on the JHCI website shortly, with others possibly to follow before the end of the year.

Hildegard Przyrembel from the Federal Institute for Consumer Health Protection and Veterinary Medicine, outlined how Germany had implemented the EC provisions relevant to health claims and questioned whether subdivisions of health claims were really necessary: either a health claim could be substantiated or it could not. Comments were also made concerning target consumer groups — do functional foods need one, and the fact that Codex draft guidelines on the use of health and nutrition claims still required any health claim to be acceptable to the competent authorities of the country where the product was sold.

In one of the conference highlights, the PAGB's Michael Baker considered the borderline between foods and medicines. He stressed the importance of the product's presentation and stressed that medicines are products presented for the treatment or prevention of disease or to restore, correct or modify physiological function. He suggested that by 2005, the medicine borderline would be between food supplements and registered herbal medicines, and noted the importance of proposed EU legislation on herbals. Following on from this both Daphne Pannemans from ILSI and Bryan Handley from Leatherhead Food RA looked at the role of substantiation for health claims.

In another key presentation Gert Schipper from Unilever looked at his priorities for the food industry and again suggested that detailed sub-classes of health claims were not necessary. He considered one of the main problems to be the movement of the individual Member States in their own directions towards a possible solution for health claims, yet with marketing and advertising of products increasingly crossing borders. It was suggested that there was not sufficient mutual trust between the Member States and that European action was needed urgently; Schipper also suggested that recent discussions with the Commission had indicated that it may now be willing to discuss further the subject of health claims.

Luis Gonzalez Vaqué from the European Commission's Internal Market DG discussed co-regulation, the use of soft law and the need to get a majority in the Council of Ministers. He indicated that a code could be accepted by the Commission in future if it was accepted by a range of interest groups and not too distant from existing regulations.

Dr Moritz Hagenmeyer gave his views on the current situation from a German legal perspective and emphasised that the lack of harmonisation at a European level is crucial, referring to specific differences between German and UK implementation of EC law. The Forum was characterised by the open and wide ranging discussion during the one and a half days from the European audience and the speakers present. The Chairman, in summing-up, considered the following points illustrated the consensus of the Forum:

  • Harmonisation in the EU was much needed;
  • Health claims in themselves are not illegal;
  • The wheel should not be re-invented in terms of substantiation, perhaps the European Food Authority has a role to play here in the future?
  • Trust between Member States is paramount;
  • There may be a future for a European Code recognised by all stakeholders;
    Do claims need to be classified in so complex a manner when communication and substantiation are what the consumer is looking for?
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