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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
EU chews over tough label rules
By Sue Emmett
BBC News consumer reporter

Food label
Manufacturers have too much leeway, Brussels reckons
Tough new rules for health and nutritional claims on food labels are being finalised at a two-day meeting of the European Parliament this week.

Lawmakers hope to outlaw misleading or vague health claims - something welcomed by many consumer groups.

Campaigners complain that there is at present no EU benchmark for standards of food labelling.

But the food industry opposes the move, arguing that it could outlaw claims that are widely accepted to be true.

Highs and lows

The European Commission is concerned about the numerous inconsistencies in current labelling rules.

We believe that if a claim is scientifically proven, manufacturers ought to be able to make it
Kate Snowden, Food and Drug Federation
For example, foods may be labelled as "low fat", while containing unhealthy levels of salt or sugar.

In fact, they may not even be "low fat" compared with other makes.

Among the current proposals, therefore, is a legally binding Europe-wide benchmark as to how low "low fat" really must be.

Consumer groups want them to go further: some have argued that foods should not be labelled "low fat" if they are unhealthy in other ways, since the label could encourage Europeans to eat more of an unwholesome product.

Some EU member states also back this view and it is likely that this proposal will be the most hard fought.

Bitter taste

In the UK, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) - which represents most of the food industry - says manufacturers now conform to the proposed benchmarks.

The UK defines "low fat" as three grammes per 100, and "low sodium" as 0.12 grammes per 100.

But the Federation is firmly against manufacturers being restricted from presenting the nutritional benefits of their products.

"We believe that if a claim is scientifically proven, manufacturers ought to be able to make it, regardless of whether there is salt, sugar and fat among the ingredients," says FDF spokeswoman Kate Snowden.

"There seems to be the idea that there should be a nutritional profile of each food, and if that doesn't meet the strict criteria laid down by a bureaucrat in Brussels, then health claims won't be allowed."

But Sue Davies of the Consumers' Association is wholeheartedly in favour of tightening up the rules.

"Only recently we highlighted how manufacturers were promoting breakfast cereals as being healthy when some of them contained high levels of salt, sugar and fat," she says.

"It's completely ridiculous to be able to claim that such foods are healthy."

Waffle warning

Brussels also intends to tackle claims that are deemed vague.

In the future... health claims will have to be proven to be true before they can be made
Sue Davis, Consumers' Association
It cites claims such as "positive effect on your well being" or "excellent for your organism", "reinforces the body's resistance" - all of which have been found on food labels.

It argues that not only are they vague, they are impossible to prove. So the aim is to draw up a register of acceptable claims and definitions.

Julia Pendower, director of UK food-supplements company Vibrant Life, fears that as a result manufacturers will be forced to omit explanatory material, leaving consumers in the dark.

She points out that a decade ago few consumers understood the role of cholesterol in the diet; health information on labels has done a lot to promote greater understanding, she insists.

She also fears that putting the onus on the industry to prove all claims could cripple small producers.

Pros and cons

Kate Snowden at the Food and Drink Federation agrees.

Are consumers being left in the dark?
"There is so much detail in these regulations... What is important is that consumers get enough information about the products and manufacturers shouldn't be restricted from giving that information."

But Sue Davies insists that tighter regulation has considerable momentum behind it.

"For too long it has been the wrong way round: manufacturers have been able to make health claims and then it has been up to trading standards officers to disprove them.

"In the future the health claims will have to be proven to be true before they can be made."

With more than 200 pages of amendments tabled, the proposed regulations will keep Brussels lawmakers busy.

It will take MEPs the next two days to discuss them at committee stage, and the proposals will then be put to the full parliament after this year's European elections.

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