The European and French position on health claims, particularly concerning fruits and vegetables
The adoption of the Regulation is still recent. For the moment, there is no official position of the European or French food safety agencies on the topic. Thus, this short paper can only reflect my personal view of what is currently going on in the different groups at the national or European level and which is publicly available. There are two related issues: claims and nutrient profiles.
Concerning claims, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) has communicated the work in progress. There is a focus on developing a guidance document for applicants to submit claims relevant to article 14 (disease risk reduction claims and claims on child development and growth). As discussed at the Bologna Conference, organized by Efsa in November 2006, it is highly probable that the criteria will be similar to those put forward by the European project Passclaim1. For a long time, scientific experts have agreed on the general principles of claim substantiation, even if some minor differences may still exist. For generic claims, the collection of generally accepted claims in each member state has begun. Expert members of the European panel are still waiting the result of this collection and, above all, of the European discussions at the Commission level on the ways to manage perhaps several thousand claims. In addition, some issues remain to be solved, especially the qualification of borderline claims and thus the clarification of boudaries between nutrition, function and disease risk reduction claims. In some countries, like France, the National agencies have already begun to examine the claims submitted by industry organizations. The French Food Safety Agency (Afssa) will, probably within few months, release an opinion on the list of claims submitted by the French industry. However, scientific evaluation of claims is only one of the many aspects linked to the new regulation. Implementation by all the stakeholders, especially small industries, is thought to be a challenge, with even more difficulties related to the existence of transition periods. On the other hand, communicating information to consumers is also a crucial issue. The French National Food Council, which offers a permanent discussion forum to all the stakeholders of the food chain, has launched a working group to examine all these aspects and to propose recommendations for accompanying the implementation of the regulation.
The request of the Commission to Efsa concerning nutrient profiles has been made public. The document recalls the five questions which are raised by the regulation (profiles by category or transversal, choice and balance of nutrients, reference basis, calculation, feasibility and testing) and makes some orientations discussed and agreed by Member States. The principle suggestion concerns the preference for a transversal system, with specific categories which could be exempted from the application of profile or have specific profiles. For the moment, no trend can be indicated on what could be the final result. It seems clear however that at least some of the more than 20 existing schemes will be scrutinized and that some ideas implemented in these systems would constitute a starting point for the proposal of Efsa. A group in Afssa is also working on the subject. Its objective is not to propose a system (it is the role of Efsa), but to thoroughly examine the scientific issues. Similar works are performed in other organizations or countries. It is hoped that, taking into account all these works, the proposition of Efsa will be strongly scientifically based. However, the constraints of management (implementation by industries and control bodies) will also somewhat balance or limit the possibilities. In France, it is considered that the implementation on nutrient profiles will not solve all the issues and that there is still a place for research on the topic. The French National Research Agency has proposed the profile issue as one of the eligible themes for its research program devoted to food and nutrition for the year 2007.
Concerning basic products in general, and fruits and vegetables in particular, it is recognized that the regulation, especially nutrient profiles, raises concerns for these basic products (including also meat, for example), which cannot adapt their composition to comply with profiles. Fruits and vegetables are one of the possible exceptions to profiles suggested by the Commission. However, this should not be a necessity. It is noteworthy that in almost all the systems published so far, most of crude fruits and vegetables comply with profiles, so that the issues are more likely to originate from fruit and vegetable-based products. It remains to decided and justified as to what could be included in an exempted category. Indeed, introducing some categories as exceptions raises the challenge of how to unambiguously define categories and what could the objective basis to include a category in the list of exceptions. Clear rules must be defined, since it appears to be unrealistic to decide on a case-by-case basis. Some criteria could be extracted from existing regulations or practices. As an example, in France, sanitary messages in advertising are not mandatory for some raw products, which are precisely defined as products which have been processed only by mechanical means (slicing or freezing for example) or packed or stored only with added water.
The majority of nutritionists do not wish that traditional healthy raw products be penalized by any profiling system.
- Aggett PJ, Antoine JM, Asp NG, Bellisle F, Contor L, Cummings JH, Howlett J, Muller DJ, Persin C, Pijls LT, Rechkemmer G, Tuijtelaars S, Verhagen H. PASSCLAIM: consensus on criteria. Eur J Nutr. 2005; 44 (Suppl 1): 5-30.