Underwriters Laboratories’ (UL) latest global study demonstrates the importance of food safety and regulations among consumers and manufacturers. 

Asked what will most impact their ability to compete, 41% of manufacturers choose “product safety,” while “product reliability” (22%) came in second and “product innovation” (16%) ranked third. Looking to the future, 31% of manufacturers also cite product safety as the most important factor – well ahead of the 20% that select product innovation. Interestingly, 92% of food manufacturers agree that product safety is becoming more important, and only 2% of those manufacturers believe their company is “behind the curve in product safety.”

What do consumers think? Seventy percent tell UL they do not believe fresh food manufacturers test thoroughly before introducing new products to the market. More than three quarters also think processed food manufacturers are not making better products than they were five years ago. Furthermore, 76% of consumers say they also find it difficult to locate product safety information about fresh food products.

One new effort might help alleviate some of those concerns. The United States and European Union plan to merge organic certification standards and eliminate fees, inspections and paperwork. Companies now must meet two different standards to obtain organic certification, plus pay double fees and submit to duplicate inspections and paperwork.

As Dacian Ciolos, the EU commissioner responsible for agriculture and rural development, explains, "This agreement comes with a double added value. On the one hand, organic farmers and food producers will benefit from easier access, with less bureaucracy and less costs, to both the U.S. and the EU markets, strengthening the competitiveness of this sector. In addition, it improves transparency on organic standards and enhances consumers' confidence and recognition of our organic food and products."

The pair’s organic standards only differ in a couple of areas. First, in terms of antibiotic use, USDA allows antibiotics only for the control of blight and disease in apple and pear orchards, while the EU permits them only for the treatment of infected animals. The new partnership will retain both bans.

The U.S. and EU also have a difference of opinion over “organic wine.” As of the 2012 harvest, the EU will allow winemakers to use the label “organic wine.” In the U.S., those wines must be labeled “made with organic grapes.”

Labeling has long been a contentious regulatory issue, but health claims have proven their worth time and again. On August 2, 2011, at Prepared Foods R&D Seminar Chicago, Wendy Bazilian with The Cherry Marketing Institute, noted, "Permissible health claims are gaining (consumer) attention. Antioxidant-rich foods show no sign of slowing down; they accounted for $1.9 billion in sales in 2009, a 29% year-on-year growth. During that same time, omega-3 claims garnered 42% sales growth, with sales of products with a probiotic, calcium or fiber claim each rising 13% over sales of the previous year."

Steven Steinborn, partner with Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP, outlines some of the pitfalls of health claims.

"Structure/function claims,” he notes, “are a distinct category of claims that has emerged in the past decade to convey the contribution of functional nutrients/substances that support the proper functioning of the body. These claims, like statements of dietary guidance, require no government pre-approval. Apart from the amount, care must be taken to avoid framing a claim in a manner that represents the product as a drug.”

Steinborn cautions manufacturers to be aware of the current regulatory climate. He says the FDA has been sending warning letters to manufacturers for claims made on their labels.

“Either as food or supplement,” he notes, “the claim has to be substantiated as having the indicated effect upon the body. On the food side, the burden is on the food company to establish the safety and authenticity of the claim before it goes to market. For supplements, the FDA has to assert that the supplement is unsafe or does not achieve the claim.”

 As Steinborn warns, “The strict application of a regulation is to be expected in the current FDA climate … When developing a substantiation of claims, look at the science in the same way the regulators look at the science.”
From the March 5, 2012, Prepared Foods’ E-dition