The European Union's draft proposal for Nutrition, Functional and Health Claims Made on Foods, which recently passed through its first consultation period, has drawn a mixed reaction from industry observers.
Penny Viner, director of UK-based Consumers for Health Choice, said that although she is in favour of the Directive in principle, she sees many aspects of the current draft as cause for concern.
"We are all for providing consumers with more information about products and their abilities, but we do not want to see it done in a way that makes the regulators decide to reclassify them as medicines, which may happen if all sorts of claims are being made about foods," she said.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition's vice chairman, Anthony Bush, said the proposed legislation, expected to pass into law by 2005, would provide for a wider range of more effective claims.
"There will be a draft Directive for Fortified Foods by the end of the year and this Health Claims Directive will apply to that as well as the Supplements Directive that passed into law in July," he said. "It has significant ramifications for the food supplements and functional foods sector because if the proposals are enacted in the way they are currently written, they could prohibit a number of claims such as 'helpful to the immune system.' It's going to require a lot of scientific substantiation of health claims. This could be very costly but may lead to more specific claims."
Bush expressed reservations about the absence of claim exclusivity.
"The wording of all claims will be subject to prior European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approval, which can be a very lengthy and costly process," he said. "A company may go through all that rigmarole to produce a claim and then everybody will be able to use it. That's not particularly helpful."
Others say the lack of exclusivity could be advantageous to smaller companies that don't have the resources to compile a scientific dossier of evidence.
Melanie Ruffell, executive secretary of the Joint Health Claims Initiative, an independent UK-based claims assessment agency, said her organisation supported the legislation.
"We are highly supportive of what we have seen so far. We are delighted to see that the European Commission has acknowledged the difference between disease risk-reduction and prevention, which means we can look forward to disease risk-reduction-type claims in the future." She said the criteria for scientific claims were cause for the greatest concern but noted, "The guidelines for the substantiation of claims have not been made clear yet."