Labeling Consequences

April 24/Brussels, Belgium/Press Association Newsfile -- European food agencies have been urged to step in to stop health and nutrition claims on food which could convince shoppers that doughnuts and crisps are good for them.

EU plans for clear food advice based on fat, sugar and salt content were originally welcomed by consumer groups when rules were approved three years ago. However, now organizations -- including the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research U.K., Diabetes U.K. and Which? -- have joined forces to warn the detailed rules being worked out could mean positive health messages appearing on the most unlikely products.

"Jam doughnuts and crisps being allowed to make nutrition claims would be laughable if it wasn't so serious," said Which? senior public affairs officer Colin Walker.

"The goalposts have been widened to the point that no one remembers why they were put there in the first place.

"The U.K. government needs to get these proposals thrown out and completely rewritten. The adoption of these criteria will weaken the fight against obesity and poor diets, doing far more harm than good."

Custard tarts and pork sausages could also be in line for labeling, which could mislead buyers about their health properties, says the organization, thanks to the "unscientific and flawed" way rules on how to assess nutrition and health claims for labeling purposes have been developed, says Which?

According to a study of 120 foods typical of the U.K. diet conducted by food scientists at Oxford University, only 7% of foodstuffs would be forbidden from claiming they were nutritious under the criteria being discussed in Brussels.

About 40% of all food products would be stopped from claiming they were healthy.

Campaigners have written to health secretary Alan Johnson urging the government to oppose the measures in the wake of a new commission document listing threshold values for a range of food categories.

Which? says "weak" thresholds being set will allow a large number of less healthy products to carry health and nutrition claims -- encouraging consumers to eat more of them and undermining public health initiatives.

The letter asks the U.K. to oppose the plan when it is discussed by EU ministers next month.

Under the three-year-old plan, nutrition claims made on food labeling must be defined by law, and any health claims must be substantiated. However, according to campaigners, the commission, which has sought advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is on the verge of setting standards leaving the door open for positive health messages on unhealthy products.

Which? cites a typical supermarket jam doughnut, a food not generally rated as healthy, which contains (per 100g): 200mg of sodium, 5.7g of saturates and 18.1g of sugar.

The proposed EU thresholds above which such contents would preclude a positive nutrition or health label on the doughnut would be(per 100g): 500mg of sodium, 8g of saturates and 25g of sugar.

It is not just U.K. organizations that are concerned. Last February, German bakers raised concerns that their whole grain bread would be declared bad for health under the EU rules on health and nutrition claims because of a comparatively high salt content.

The letter urging Johnson to take up the issue in Brussels was signed by Which?; the British Heart Foundation: Netmums; Cancer Research U.K.; Diabetes U.K.; Consumer Focus; the International Association for the Study of Obesity; Sustain; and the National Heart Forum.

From the April 27, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition