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EFSA grants industry another chance to discuss health claims

European scientists have again agreed to face the functional products industry in a bid to provide further clarification of the process for evaluating health claims submitted under the EU's Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is responsible for assessing the evidence used to back claims, will hold an open meeting on June 1 in Parma, Italy, where it is based. The agency has placed a strict limit on attendee numbers of 250, meaning there is likely to be a scramble to apply for places by the deadline of May 3.

EFSA said the meeting would be "organised in a way that provides for interactive exchange of expert views." Officials from EFSA would provide an update on "key issues related to the scientific substantiation of health claims and in relation to procedural aspects of health claims applications and Article 13 health claims," it added. There would also be an opportunity for an "exchange of views on questions and comments arising during the meeting."

The meeting will be open to anyone with an interest in the health claims process, and given the well-documented controversy generated by the regulation — the vast majority of health claims applications have been rejected by EFSA — the conference venue, Parma's Auditorium Paganini, is likely to be packed out with consultants and food and drink company representatives from all parts of the functional food and ingredients industry.

But there is a question mark over whether the get-together will really tell anyone in the industry anything they don't already know. After the last such meeting, on June 15, 2009, the view of many was that while the event had been a useful exercise, delegates came away with little in the way of new information. At the time, David Richardson of London-based consultancy DPR Nutrition, who was among the delegates, told Functional Ingredients: "Overall I wouldn't say we learned a lot and there was a huge degree of disappointment among those at the meeting."

Mark Tallon of consultancy NutriSciences said this week that he remained to be convinced that the June 1 meeting would offer much in the way of real help to companies submitting claims for evaluation by EFSA. "In retrospect the 2009 summit provided little clarification of the pertinent scientific and commercial aspects of the regulation as EFSA had set out its stall and was unwilling to change its approach," he said.

However, European food and drink industry trade body CIAA welcomed the opportunity to meet again with EFSA. "We look forward to a constructive and interactive exchange of views," said director general Mella Frewen. "We very much hope that this meeting will be able to shed further light on the procedure used and the type of substantiation documents required by applicants when submitting a claim for assessment."

Meanwhile, as EFSA released news of the June 1 meeting, a group of more than 350 companies revealed they had written to the president of the European Commission in a mass appeal to stop the adoption of the list of Article 13.1 generic health claims in several batches rather than in one go.

The letter, co-ordinated by the European Health Claims Alliance, warned José Manuel Barroso that this approach "distorts competition in the market, creates unnecessary and disproportionate costs for manufacturers due to successive label changes, and creates confusion in the market as non-harmonised claims co-exist with harmonised claims with unequal conditions of access to markets across the EU." The companies said this approach would "ultimately have a potentially devastating impact on the industry."

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