The European Health and Nutrition Claims regulation set to come into force by year's end will favour larger food and supplements companies and see expenditure budgets shifted from scientific research and claims development into marketing and promotion, according to a prominent industry group.
Even a health and nutrition claims registration process that has been streamlined so that a claim can be processed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in as little as seven months will not incentivise claims research, said the European Responsible Nutrition Alliance's secretary general, Patrick Coppens.
The fact a dossier's submission to EFSA became public knowledge was another barrier to innovation, he said, as companies would be less willing to invest in science they had few proprietary rights over.
"If the claim is accepted, companies will have the opportunity to put products into 25 markets, but most small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) operate in local markets," he observed.
"So the EU benefits do not necessarily apply to them. The smaller companies battling in a crowded marketplace will struggle with the system."
The regulation stipulates guidelines will be issued to assist SMEs, but these have not been made implicit.
Under the proposed regulation, likely to be voted on by the European Council after the summer break, a central registry of claims will be established that can be used in all 25 EU member states. Children's claims may go through a separate system.
David Adams, director of the UK Health Food Manufacturers Association, said "Authorities and leading trade organisations are collating lists of outstanding issues on which clarification is required urgently."
These include "the need to develop a common understanding of the criteria for substantiation of 'generic list' claims and the implications of the stipulation that claims referring to 'children's development and health' will require individual authorisation."
Coppens sees potential consumer confusion in the 'one-nutrient rule' that will allow foods that exceed set limits in certain non-nutritious ingredients to carry nutrition claims.
"Take fruit juices. Many claim to contain no added sugar yet fruit juices are full of naturally occurring sugar. So a product could say it is both high in sugar and sugar-free. It becomes meaningless.
"Many fermented probiotic beverages may be prevented from making health claims because they are high in sugar because the one-nutrient rule permits only nutrient claims, not health claims."