Transparency for Consumers or Barrier to Innovation?

Sep 30, 2013, 08:13 ET from UBM Live

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany, September 30, 2013 /PRNewswire/ --

- Either way, the Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims is sure to bring lots of change

Is that healthy? Does it strengthen the immune system? Until recently, the question of what additional health value foods offer was mostly answered by producers themselves and labelled on the packaging. "Strengthens intestinal flora," "strengthens the heart and circulation," and "lowers cholesterol" are just some of the claims. As proof, manufacturers were to demonstrate the benefit in a self-conducted study. Since 2006, however, the Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims has been in place. It lays down harmonised rules across the European Union for the use of such claims. The regulation is also a major topic for many exhibitors at the Food Ingredients Europe (Fi Europe) fair taking place from the 19th to the 21st of September in Frankfurt am Main. Businesses in food ingredients and packaging are closely collaborating here to present solutions that comply with the new regulation and also enhance both the appearance and the content of the product.

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On its website, the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection states that the consumer should be able to rely on "claims that are true and accurate, and supported by scientific data". Peter Loosen, managing director of the Bund für Lebensmittelrecht und Lebensmittelkunde e.V. (BLL), elaborates, "This means that basically all claims relating to the health benefits of ingredients are prohibited, with the exception of those that have been expressly approved." It took until May 2012 to prepare this list, which authorises a total of 222 claims. "That surprised the industry," says Loosen. "We had anticipated a far greater number and, above all, in a broader spectrum." The authorised claims mainly only relate to vitamins and minerals. Omitted areas include fibre or functional ingredients, such as probiotics or glucosamine, which is generally considered to strengthen the joints. Loosen states, "In the meantime, six additional claims have been authorised; a seventh is pending, and a total of six claims relating to caffeine are still being discussed, however, will apparently be added to the lists soon."

Risk or opportunity?

Yet the regulation is not merely geared to consumer protection. It was also initiated to create equal marketing conditions in the EU. Loosen explains, "In the past, certain claims could be used in France but not in Germany - regardless of the fact that the legislative framework was the same." Now, it is much easier to sell a product across Europe. The question is whether or not it will still be worth it for companies to apply for authorisation of certain claims. Among other things, clinical trials must be performed, which are tedious and, above all, costly. However: Should a company have a finding that is surprising or not yet known, the company has the right to exclusively use this finding for five years.

The expert doubts that this is sufficient. "Companies have already announced that this is hampering their innovation. For many, the hurdles are just too high and expensive," says Loosen. Research and development are not balanced with profit here. The market simply thinks in terms of saving costs. Nevertheless, there will be many innovations and new products to see at Fi Europe. The industry is continuously growing and will cater to the market's requirements, even under the pressure the regulation imposes.

More transparency for the consumer

The regulation primarily aims to prevent misleading advertising claims and to make food labelling as transparent as possible for the consumer. Regarding the requirement to label, Loosen says, "Today, food companies are more transparent than ever." Ingredients, additives, how much of what, for what purpose, and the upcoming requirement to provide a nutrition facts table, inform the consumer of a product's contents. The government fundamentally ensures that consumers can eat all food products on the market without concern. Through the requirement to label and to be transparent, consumers are only left with the choice of which ingredients they prefer. Loosen: "But in the end, the labelling is just one side of the coin. The information needs to be perceived and understood as well." With the stevia plant, for example, the sweetening agent is allowed but it is still uncertain whether the dried leaves of the plant may be used. Drawing the line is sometimes difficult even for experts. More education is needed here with regard to what the labelled information means and the consumer also needs to be actively involved.

What will the future bring?

Many issues relating to food ingredients and their health-related claims have not been clarified yet. There is, for example, still a large gap as regards plant-derived ingredients known as botanicals. To date, no agreement has been reached on a list here because demonstrating the beneficial effects is difficult. Food law expert Loosen also sees two critical points here: "If no agreement can be reached, then, in the worst case, health claims for botanicals could be banned completely. But a consumer generally believes that plant extracts have a positive effect. When this cannot be officially attributed to natural products then it just confuses consumers even more." Possible restrictions and authorisations may be on the agenda in further areas as well. The Novel Food Regulation is to be revised. Since 1997, there has already been immense red tape tied to bringing in novel foods from another country and selling them here. In the future, the barrier to selling foods that are consumed across the globe may be raised even higher in the EU. Loosen concludes, "The trend clearly points to even more rigid laws." That this will hamper innovation is now foreseeable. Time will tell whether it will bring consumers greater protection and transparency, or confusion and uncertainty. Fi Europe is just the right place to contribute to this discussion or meet new business partners who have optimal solutions that comply with the current regulations. This is where those seeking novelties, who want to have a say, or want to influence the food ingredients market, meet.

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