Fears persist that consumers will struggle to understand EFSA's "clinical" health claims

The European Commission has met with EU member states in a bid to tackle the increasingly contentious issue of the wording of health claims.

The conference took place amid rising concern that claims approved by the European Food Safety Authority — which is evaluating claims submitted for assessment under the EU's Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation — are sometimes framed in language few consumers could be expected to understand.

Perhaps the highest profile example of this was provided by Fruitflow, the tomato extract for which UK-based Provexis gained a positive health claims opinion in May 2009. Provexis had applied for the claim: "Helps to maintain a healthy blood flow and benefits circulation." But EFSA said the evidence did not reflect this wording and instead approved the claim: "Helps maintain normal platelet aggregation" — leading to fears consumers would not understand it.

Mark Tallon, founder of UK-based consultancy NutriSciences, said the wording of claims was presenting the European Commission with a thorny problem. "Gaining a health claim is one thing but gaining one that makes sense to the general public is another," he said. "As part of the general conditions of Article 13 claims a health claim must be 'well understood by the average consumer.' Claims must also protect the consumer from being misled, and balancing these two issues is causing some difficulties."

Tallon, who reported news of the meeting between the Commission and member states on his blog, said the discussion covered a host of ingredients with health claims approvals including biotin, calcium and vitamin D, copper, fluoride, iron and lactase enzyme.

The wording for one claim approved by EFSA for biotin, which is a B vitamin, is: "Biotin contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism." Tallon said the group discussed whether consumers would understand the phrase 'energy-yielding metabolism' and ways of tackling this. The meeting also addressed EFSA's frequent use of the word 'normal' in claims, and whether consumers would better understand the word 'healthy' instead.

One suggestion made at the meeting, said Tallon, was that member states should be able to look at the EFSA opinions and try to suggest more meaningful claims based on the scientific evidence. EFSA would then be asked to verify the new wording. In any case, said Tallon, the meeting showed that "already there are significant issues in relation to member states accepting the clinical nature of EFSA wording."

The meeting closed with an agreement that further guidance for member states on wording would be produced by the Commission. However, Tallon added: "Whatever the guidance one major concern is that every change in EFSA's approved claim has the potential to take wording further away from the substantiated meaning of the claim. The fallout could make the process of enforcement and harmonisation of any claims throughout the EU more difficult and complex."

Meanwhile, trade body the Federation of Associations of Health Product Manufacturers (EHPM) has renewed calls for the European Commission to prevent Article 13.1 health claims to be adopted in staggered batches. Speaking at a workshop held at the European Parliament in Brussels, Peter Van Doorn, EHPM chairman, said: "The batch-wise approach to the adoption of the Article 13 community list of generic health claims distorts competition in the market and is one of the many concerns that our industry has on the current implementation process of this regulation." An industry impact assessment was underway with preliminary results this due summer, he added.

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