US may reclassify functional foods

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has opened debate on whether the burgeoning functional foods market should be classified as a category in its own right by holding a public hearing into the best way to regulate them. "We believe that it would be in the best interest of public health to begin a dialogue with industry, consumers and other stakeholders regarding the regulation of these products," FDA said.

As things stands, functional foods are regulated in the same manner as conventional foods under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act but the FDA noted that, "Increased consumer demand is causing the food industry to add more and larger amounts of substances to food." This fact prompted the FDA to call for public comment although an FDA spokesperson said it was expected the existing rules would remain unchanged.

Critics such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) state any reclassification would be extremely difficult to implement, as there are as many definitions of functional foods as there are functional foods. "Functional foods are just that: foods," GMA has said. "They already have to meet stringent food safety regulations."

But pressure from the likes of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which calls for tighter controls on which ingredients can be added to foods and what health claims can be made about them, is forcing the issue. The CSPI would also like to see a pre-market approval system put in place for new products. Currently, any food is considered innocent (can be put on market) until proven guilty (somebody makes a complaint) as long as its ingredients are generally regarded as being safe.

Some estimates put the US functional foods market at $49 billion by 2010. The hearing will be held Dec. 5 in the FDA's Washington, DC headquarters.

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