EU health rules "favour big firms" say food campaigners

By Kevin Core
You and Yours, Radio 4

image captionUnder the rules, companies like Danone had to satisfy the authorities about their claims

Thousands of health claims are disappearing from food packaging due to controversial EU legislation.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) studied 44,000 claims, and permitted only 241, arguing this would help consumers shop healthily.

Glenis Willmott MEP said the rules offered consumers vital protection.

But Dr Robert Verkerk of the Alliance for Natural Health told BBC Radio 4's You and Yours the EU standards favoured bigger food companies.

The Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation was adopted in 2006 to ensure that consumers were not misled by unsubstantiated, exaggerated or untruthful claims.

The intention was to verify claims which the consumer could reasonably understand to have a medical basis.

European Union member states submitted 44,000 'general function' health claims on the part of manufacturers. These were boiled down to 4,637 claims for consideration by the Parma-based EFSA.

Among the applications thrown out were suggestions that green tea was good for blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bones and teeth, and that it was an anitoxidant which could reduce signs of ageing.

But Dr Robert Verkerk said big firms who had sufficient resources could play the system and claim health benefits simply by inserting a small amount of an approved ingredient such as Vitamin C into a product.

He added that some rules were so specific it meant you could not claim fruit was beneficial, or that a diet rich in vegetables helped regulate body weight.

Dr Verkerk said: "One of our gripes is that EFSA have not taken it upon themselves to look wider than that evidence which was put in front of them.

"The trick is that in order to pass the EFSA test you needed to have been able to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship and trying to prove that something is beneficial is actually pretty hard.

"If we look at tobacco and lung cancer it took around 30 years to establish a causal relationship."

Glenis Willmott MEP is a member of the European Parliament's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee which oversaw the legislation.

She argued that if big firms did try to insert approved ingredients into products just to make a health claim they would fall foul of "nutrient profiles" which disallowed claims if foods were high in sugar and salt.

She told You and Yours: "There are too many foods which claim they are healthy - you could have a 'healthy' chocolate donut because it's had added vitamins. That surely is not acceptable and it is very misleading to consumers.

"The legislation is fit for purpose and will make sure that consumers aren't misled when they are buying some of these foods with spurious health claims.

"I hear all the time that this is a problem for small to medium enterprises, but they can use research which has been done previously - they don't have to start from scratch. It's not as complicated as people are making out."

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