London, England: A recent EU discussion paper raised the possibility of stricter regulations for health and nutritional claims on foods in the context of European community-wide harmonisation of food labelling laws.
The paper, issued by the European Commission's Directorate for General Health and Consumer Protection, calls new regulations for nutritional claims "a very high priority". With different types of claims allowed in different countries, consumers are left without consistent standards to assess labelling, says the paper, raising two possible regulatory responses to the situation: mandatory approval of health claims before a product goes on sale and a list of pre-approved claims.
However, UK food industry representatives have reacted unenthusiastically to the prospect of pre-market approval of claims. A spokeswoman for industry body the Food and Drink Federation told the Financial Times: "If we had a very static system there would be little point in developing a new product. It would be a disincentive to bring anything to market." The self-regulatory Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) was a more sensible solution for UK manufacturers, she noted.
Self Regulation Is Effective
The JHCI is a coalition of industry representatives and consumer groups offering non-mandatory advice on claims.
JHCI executive secretary Melanie Ruffell explained the position of group members: "The JHCI is not wholly opposed to the regulation of health claims, as long as the regulatory system is clear and workable. We are confident that self-regulation is equally as effective as regulation, given that it minimizes the requirement for law enforcement resources and encourages self-monitoring and responsibility within the industry."
But the UK Consumers' Association believes the JHCI may not be an adequate response. With no regulatory authority, consumers could still be misled by unscrupulous companies, said a spokesman. "More and more functional foods are appearing in our shops, carrying an array of claims. At the moment, people don't trust these claims — and they won't until they're backed by independent evidence. The Joint Health Claims Initiative has taken some positive steps, but how effective its code will be remains to be seen, as the JHCI has no power to enforce manufacturers to comply."