As part of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy for a sustainable food system under the Green Deal, the European Commission agrees that nudging is necessary to guide the consumer to healthier and more sustainable food choices. This has translated into two impact assessments for mandatory front-of-pack (FOP) labeling. Various EU Member States and individual food business operators are however not waiting for harmonized EU FOP labeling and adopted the nutri-score (guiding health choices) and/or eco-score (guiding sustainability choices). This blogpost shows how these initiatives fit into the current and upcoming legal framework.
Nutri-score is a five-color nutrition label demonstrating the overall nutritional value of a food product front-of-pack. It allows consumers to compare various foods in a simple and fast way. The label is based on a scale of 5 color and letters, from a dark green “A” for the most healthy choice to a red “E” for the least healthy choice. Simply put, the algorithm behind nutri-score allocates positive points for favorable dietary components (fruits, vegetables, pulses nuts, fibers and proteins) and negative points for energy and unfavorable dietary components (saturated fatty acids, sugars and sodium). The total positive points are subsequently subtracted from the total negative points. The lower the score, the better the letter/color grade.
Fighting nutrition-related non-communicable diseases
The aim of nutri-score is to nudge the consumer into healthier food choices, and to stimulate the food industry to reformulate their recipes. This way, nutri-score should contribute substantially to a reduced burden of nutrition-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer.
From a legal perspective, nutri-score qualifies as voluntary food labeling in accordance with article 36 FIC Regulation. Food business operators that opt for using nutri-score are however obliged to use it for all foods they place on the market to avoid cherry picking. Moreover, a green “A” or “B” score additionally qualifies as a nutrition claim under the Claims Regulation. Since the claim is not listed in the annex to the Regulation, Member States adopting the nutri-score are subject to the notification procedure of article 23 of the Claims Regulation.
Countries that implemented nutri-score (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland) or are willing to use it (Netherlands and Spain) join forces to ensure that nutri-score is in line with the national dietary guidelines. To coordinate such, the abovementioned countries established a Steering Committee and Scientific Committee in February 2021. The Steering Committee is composed of two representatives from national authorities in charge of the nutri-score implementation in each country; the Scientific Committee includes one or two independent experts nominated by each country involved. On March 7 last, the Scientific Committee published its interim report in which it proposes a methodology for modification of the nutri-score algorithm to handle problematic food categories (fats and oils, fish and seafood, whole grain products, salt, sugar, beverages, and dairy products). The Scientific Committee aims at providing a fully revised version of the nutri-score algorithm before the summer. The Steering Committee will have the final say in the recommendations proposed by the Scientific Committee and, where relevant, will elaborate a support document for food business operators to facilitate the appropriation of algorithm changes by the end of the year.
Developments at EU level
In the meantime, the European Commission held a public consultation to introduce standardized mandatory FOP nutrition labeling as part of the revision of the FIC Regulation within the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy. In its impact assessment, it listed five options:
- Baseline (“business as usual”) – it remains possible to voluntarily use a public or private, non-harmonized, FOP label.
- Nutrient- specific labels (numerical) – a harmonized FOP label such as the Italian Nutrinform Battery, providing numerical information on the content of macro nutrients and the energy value of a food, as well as the percentage of the daily refence intake that it makes up for.
- Nutrient-specific labels (color-coded) – a harmonized FOP label such as the UK Multiple Traffic Lights, which is similar to the numerical label but in addition uses colors to classify the content of nutrients as green, amber or red.
- Summary labels (endorsement logos) – a harmonized FOP label such as the Keyhole used in Sweden, which can be applied only to foods that comply with certain beneficial nutritional criteria.
- Summary labels (graded indicators) – a harmonized FOP label such as nutri-score, providing an appreciation of a product’s overall nutritional value through a graded indicator.
The harmonized FOP nutrition label as listed under 2 – 5 above could be either voluntary or mandatory, which is still subject to debate. The impact assessment also mentions the possibility of having a policy mix rather than using one preferred option. Next to the outcome of the public consultation, the European Commission will take into account the comprehensive review on FOP nutrition labeling schemes by the Joint Research Centre (2020) on EFSA’s recent scientific advise on nutrient profiling. A legislative proposal is expected in Q4 2022.
Eco-score can be seen as the equivalent of nutri-score in the field of sustainability. Just like nutri-score, eco-score is a French initiative. It shows the consumer the environmental impact of a food, using the same presentation as nutri-score in terms of colors and letters. The food’s environmental impact is measured in two steps. First, the environmental footprint is calculated using the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method, which is based on a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The PEF method takes into account 16 different impact categories, such as ozone depletion, land use and climate change. This eventually translates into a score between 0 and 100. Thereafter, bonus points can be added up or minus points can be deduced from this score. These extra points (positive or negative) are based on 4 additional criteria: (1) food production methods as measured through attributed third-party sustainability credentials such as organic certification, fairtrade or MSC, (2) recyclability of the packaging, (3) the provenance of ingredients, and (4) the stay-away from biodiversity-related issues such as overfishing and deforestation. The LCA takes place at product category level; the allocated bonus and minus points are related to the individual product.
Legal basis: currently no specific rules
There is not yet a legal framework specifically dedicated to environmental claims, let alone a legal definition thereof. Environmental claims are currently enforced based on general rules, guidelines and self-regulation within the legal framework of unfair commercial practices and misleading advertisements, as discussed in our earlier blogpost. Interestingly, these different sources produce different definitions of environmental claims. The definition thereof in the Dutch Code for Environmental Advertising is for example very broad and includes the eco-score as a claim related to the environmental factors connected with the product. It is however questionable whether an eco-score “C”, “D” or “E” would fall under the definition of a ‘green claim’ under the EC Guidance on the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. This latter guidance namely refers to a positive environmental impact (which products with lower scores have not) or a lower damaging impact on the environment than competing products. Since the eco-score algorithm is largely based on product categories rather than individual products, it is not necessarily suitable for comparisons between competing products such as for example different fruit juices. Assuming that eco-score does qualify as an environmental claim, the following question is whether it is in conformity with the applicable rules. These rules are however not black and white and leave room for interpretation, especially since the number of enforcement cases is still rather low.
Future situation: EU harmonization of eco-score?
The ambiguity illustrated above may be over with in the near future, since the European Commission is working towards the harmonized use of a sustainability label under its Farm to Fork Strategy and the transition towards a sustainable food system. In its impact assessment, it lists the following options:
- Baseline (“business as usual”) – No specific new actions, though existing initiatives on environmental claims will be continued, such as the upcoming legislation on the substantiating of environmental footprint claims by use of the PEF or OEF (organizational environmental footprint) method.
- Voluntary approaches – No legislative initiatives but guidance and private initiatives such as codes of conducts.
- Reinforcing existing legislation – Development of sustainability labeling provisions related to more than one sustainability component (such as environmental and social sustainability) through existing sector-specific legislation (for example fisheries marketing standards).
- Voluntary EU sustainability label – Development of a voluntary harmonized sustainability label, either applicable to all foods or to foods that meet a certain sustainability standard only.
- Mandatory EU sustainability label – Development of a mandatory harmonized sustainability label, either for all foods placed on the EU market or mandatory for EU produced foods and voluntary for imported foods.
A legislative proposal is expected in Q4 2023. Until July 21 of this year, it is possible to contribute through the public consultation.
Meanwhile in the Member States….
Member States seem not to be waiting for the legislative proposals of the European Commission. Instead, various Member States launched national initiatives on FOP sustainability labels and join forces to ensure that such labels will be implemented in a similar way throughout the EU. Taking the Netherlands as an example, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality aims to implement a voluntary sustainability label for foods in the Netherlands by 2025. This goal forms part of the National Climate Agreement. Together with the food sector and other stakeholders, the Ministry is currently investigating how such a label for the Dutch market could look like. LCA’s based on the PEF-method are taken as a starting point for further development.
FOP labeling is a topic of conversation. Various initiatives on both national and European level are taking place simultaneously, in the hope that they will once come together as an EU harmonized label. We see different food businesses reacting to this situation differently. Where some opt for awaiting formal decisions at national level and instructions by the government, others are pioneering and experimenting with FOP labeling within the currently existing legal framework. Examples include the nutri-score pilot by Iglo and the full-fledged use of eco-score by Colruyt Group in Belgium. What about you? Are you a game changer or a laggerd?
Together with Lisa Gray from Iglo and Veerle Poppe from Colruyt Group, Jasmin Buijs presented this topic at the VMT Food Law Event on June 7 last.
From May 26 this year, the personalized nutrition space has been enriched with a new piece of legislation: the Regulation (EU) 2017/745 on medical devices (hereinafter: “MDR”). The MDR is, generally speaking, applicable to all personalized nutrition (software) products, including apps and algorithms, with a medical intended purpose. Since most personal nutrition services that are currently on the market are lifestyle related, they will not be affected by the MDR. This will however be different for services that offer dietary advice for the prevention, alleviation or treatment of a disease. This blogpost aims to provide an introduction to the new rules on personalized nutrition as a medical device.
What is the MDR?
The MDR comprises of a set of rules that governs the full medical devices supply chain from manufacturer to end user in order to ensure the safety and performance of medical devices. It applies to any apparatus, application, software or other article intended by the manufacturer to be used for a medical purpose. This includes, like under the old medical devices legislation, the diagnosis, prevention, monitoring, treatment or alleviation of a disease. Since the application of the MDR, also devices designed for the prediction or prognosis of a disease qualify as a medical device. Genetic testing kits for medical purposes and other medical devices to be used in vitro for the examination of specimens such as blood are covered by the MDR’s sister, Regulation (EU) 2017/746 on in-vitro diagnostic medical devices (hereinafter: “IVDR”). The IVDR applies from May 26 next year.
When does the MDR apply to personalized nutrition software?
The essential question for the MDR’s applicability is thus whether the article or software concerned has a medical purpose or is merely lifestyle or well-being related. For example, an app that provides dietary advice based on the users’ preferences and potential health data is a lifestyle product. But if the same app claims to help address obesity or treat hypertension, then it can be linked to a disease and transforms into a medical device. While the intention of the manufacturer of the device is leading for the application of the MDR, it should be noted that only a statement that a product is not a medical device, or is meant for lifestyle purposes only, does not constitute a reason to escape from this regulation. The intended purpose is inferred from every document and statement that expresses the intended purpose, including advertising and marketing material. Disclaiming a medical intended purpose in the instructions for use but claiming such purpose in marketing materials will still result in a finding of a medical intended purpose. The MDR contains an explicit prohibition on statements that may mislead the end user about the intended purpose or ascribes functions or properties to the device that it does not have, which would be caught in its scope.
Another example of a medical device is the wearable being developed by the Australian start-up Nutromics, which assesses dietary biomarkers to provide dietary advice to minimize users’ risk for lifestyle-related chronic diseases. This device is designed to predict the user’s likelihood of developing a particular disease and to subsequently provide advice to prevent such disease, and will therefore be subject to the MDR when placed on the Union market. On the other hand and as clarified earlier by the European Commission in its borderline manual for medical devices, a home-kit that enables the user to ascertain their blood group in order to determine whether a specific diet should be followed falls outside the medical sphere (as defined in the (old) medical devices legislation). The sidenote should however be made that this decision was not related to following a specific diet for medical purposes.
It is also relevant to state that software may as well qualify partly as a medical device and partly as a non-medical device. Think for example of an app that provides the user with personalized nutritional advice as part of the treatment or alleviation of diabetes, and additionally facilitates online contact with fellow patients. While the software module(s) that provide information on the treatment or alleviation of the disease will be subject to the MDR, the software module that is responsible for the contact amongst patients has no medical purpose and will therefore not be subject to the MDR. The manufacturer of the device is responsible for identifying the boundaries and the interfaces of the medical device and non-medical device modules contained in the software. The Medical Device Coordination Group has pointed out in its guidance on qualification and classification of software (October 2019) that if the medical device modules are intended for use in combination with other modules of the software, the whole combination must be safe and must not impair the specified performances of the modules which are subject to the MDR. This means that also the non-medical devices module(s) may have to be covered in the technical documentation that supports the device’s compliance with the MDR and as further introduced below.
Way to market of personal nutrition software
All medical devices placed on the Union market must in principle have a CE (conformité européenne) marking as proof of compliance with the law. To apply the CE-mark, the manufacturer has to prepare technical documentation and carry out a conformity assessment procedure, including clinical evaluation. The specific procedure that must be followed depends on the risk class of the device. The MDR distinguishes the risk classes I, IIa, IIb and III (from low to high). The higher the risk class of the device, the more stringent requirements for clinical evaluation apply to demonstrate safety, performance and clinical benefits. It could ironically be stated that MDR stands for More Data Required: where an analysis of available clinical data from literature may have been sufficient in the past, the MDR more often requires own clinical investigations to support the device’s safety and performance.
Under the MDR, software as medical device is classified as class IIa when it is intended to provide information which is used to take decisions with diagnosis or therapeutic purposes, or to monitor physiological processes. Translated to personal nutrition services, this would for instance include apps that track burned calories (monitoring of physiological processes) and that provide dietary advice as part of a treatment (therapeutic purposes). Risk increasing factors will however lead to a higher risk class than class IIa. While an app with which food products’ barcodes can be scanned to detect certain ingredients for allergen control purposes would normally be a class IIa device, it will be a class III device when food intake decisions based on the app may cause life-threatening allergic reactions when based on a false negative (safe to eat while it in fact is not safe).
All other software which is not specifically addressed but still has a medical intended purpose in scope of the definition of a medical device, is classed as class I. An example would be an app that provides nutritional support with a view to conception. The risk classification rules for software are new under the MDR, which means that existing medical devices software may be scaled in a higher risk class since 26 May 2021. This is relevant not only with regard to the conformity assessment procedure that must be followed, but also to the question who can perform the required assessment of legal compliance. Manufacturers of devices in a higher class than class I must always engage a so-called notified body in this regard, while class I devices can in principle be self-certified by the manufacturer. An exception exists however for class I devices that have a measurement function, for example by using the lidar of the user’s phone to measure the body as input for the functionality of the app, which also require the engagement of a notified body.
Take away for food businesses
When personal nutrition enters into the medical sphere, the MDR will come into play. This will impact first and foremost the manufacturers, importers and distributors of actual medical devices, including apps and algorithms. Having said that, food businesses that wish to market their food products through medical devices apps are advised to be aware of the implications thereof. This will help them to find a reliable partner and to ensure their interests are contractually protected.
A more elaborate version of this blogpost has been published at Qina in cooperation with Mariette Abrahams.
Last week I received a call from an entrepreneur who wanted to know what requirements he had to bear in mind when distributing food supplements from Finland to other EU Member States. I told him about the language requirements for mandatory food information. I also informed him that the allowed level of vitamins and minerals could differ from Member State to Member State. Furthermore, in some countries a so-called notification system for market access has been put in place, whereas in others, no such system applies. Finally, I informed him that there is no harmonised approach on prohibited substances in the EU either. In fact, he was quite surprised to learn about all this, as he thought food supplements to be subject to the principle of free circulation of goods in the internal market. Is not that correct? Yes, it is. However, as follows from the above, a number of exceptions apply to this principle. This blogpost explains what is being done to achieve more harmonisation in the food supplements market.
Food supplements: what are they in fact and what happens in practice?
According to the Food Supplements Directive, food supplements are meant to supplement the normal diet. They are concentrated sources of nutrients or other substances having a nutritional or physiological effect that are mostly sold in the form of pills or powders. While nutrients are vitamins and/or minerals, such other substances are, for example, amino acids, glucosamine or certain substances contained in herbs or plants. What we see in practice, is that more and more consumers use food supplements not only to supplement their diet, but for a targeted health effect. Increasing concentration or improving sport achievements are two examples thereof. Another trend is that a broad number of food supplements is nowadays offered for sale online. As many of them come with striking health claims, it is not always sufficiently clear for consumers what they are actually buying. In these COVID-times, many supplements claimed for example to boost the immune system without meeting the specific requirements for such claim. This may create a dangerous situation if and when dangerous substances are involved.
Food supplements: a boosting market but not without risks
The market of food supplements in the Netherlands alone was valued in 2019 by Neprofarm at € 143 million. In that same year, the Netherlands pharmacovigilance centre Lareb received 165 notifications of adverse reactions regarding food supplements. Even worse, the Netherlands Intoxications Information Centre NVIC reported 891 cases of intoxications through the use of food supplements in 2019. These adverse effects or intoxications may result in stomach complaints, headaches or dizziness, but also in more severe conditions such as hart complaints or even cerebral haemorrhage. It follows from inspection results of the Dutch Food Safety Authority NVWA that only 45 % of the food business operators comply with all applicable food safety requirements. Due to the lack of regulatory harmonisation in this field and the open norm laid down in the General Food Law Regulation (article 14 thereof states “food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe”), this makes effective enforcement of food safety for food supplement a complex task.
Dutch initiatives aimed at more EU harmonization for food supplements
In an ideal world, dangerous substances are prohibited on an EU-wide basis. Currently, an initiative is ongoing to add substances to the list of unsafe substances under the Fortification Directive. Furthermore, in February 2020, an initiative was launched by the enforcement authorities of 18 Member States including those of the Netherlands, to draft a joint list of prohibited substances for food supplements. Since both initiatives are not expected to materialize overnight, the Dutch Health Minister has decided, in cooperation with the Dutch Food Safety Authority and the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board CBG amongst others, to draft a national list of unsafe substances. This list will be based on risk evaluations pertaining thereto and the aim is to give this list a statutory basis, by integrating it in the Dutch Commodities Act (“Warenwet”). Furthermore, the Dutch Food Safety Authority has designed a targeted approach of sales of food supplements via the internet. Based on the Dutch polder tradition, this approach is consensus-based, aiming to agree with online marketplaces that they remove from their offerings any food supplements containing prohibited substances. Also, the Dutch Health Minister oversees that the communications to consumers on food supplements by a number of channels, such as the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (“Voedingscentrum”), the Health Inspectorate IGJ and the National Institute for Public Health RIVM, provides proper risk information. Finally, the Health Minister considers introducing a system of prior notification and some level of safety evaluation into the Netherlands as well.
Are these initiatives a good thing or a bad thing?
In order to enhance consumer safety, the above initiatives are certainly a good thing. For food business operators however, they may entail further obstacles to the free circulation of goods in the internal market. Based on the new Official Controls Regulation, enforcement authorities are allowed to do “mystery shopping”, i.e. ordering food supplements without identifying themselves. Once the Dutch national list of dangerous substances will have a statutory basis, the Dutch Food Safety Authority could do online test purchases with EU food business operators that may not be aware of such list. If their products are not in line therewith, they are subject to enforcement measures. As to the intended introduction of the notification requirement of food supplements in the Dutch market, this will certainly make market access less smooth.
On the other hand, in a number of EU countries, such as Belgium and France, a system of prior notification for food supplements is already in place. In practice, we see this can operate as a “safety seal”, meaning that supplements that were allowed on those markets, potentially earn more easily market access in other Member States as well. Furthermore, a new tool is available to food business operators since the new Regulation on mutual recognition became applicable in April 2020. Article 4 thereof offers the possibility to draw up a voluntary declaration to demonstrate to the competent authorities of other Member States that a food product is lawfully marketed, for instance in the Netherlands. The competent authorities in the Member State of destination can only oppose the further marketing thereof based on legitimate public interest, for instance public health. I expect this to be as useful tool for the further circulation of food supplements in the internal market.
Finally, I expect the Dutch national list of unsafe and hence prohibited substances for food supplements also to provide some more clarity in this field, provided that it will also be easily accessible to food business operators abroad. When these food business operators indeed duly inform themselves, this list could facilitate the successful EU-wide launch of food supplements, with less unclarity pre-launch and less surprises after launch. Which is supposed to be a good thing.
The information shared in this blogpost stems from a letter of the Dutch Health Minister to the Dutch House of representatives dated 14 December 2020, which can be viewed here (in Dutch only).
Last week, the creation of the new Advisory Group on the Status of Borderline Products was published in the Dutch Government Gazette. The Advisory Group consists of expert representatives from the Healthcare Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority, the Medicines Evaluation Board and the Central Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects. Its task is to issue advice on the legislation to be applied to individual products / product groups / substances belonging to a group of so-called borderline products. The reason that this Advisory Group was created is that the regulations in the field of market authorization and research with such products are complex and that it is not always clear which law is applicable. In such case it is also not clear which enforcement authority is competent to act in case of violations of the law. This is deemed undesirable by both the marketplace and the government authorities and the Advisory Group aims to change this.
Demarcation issues not new
Demarcation issues at the interface of the laws applicable to food products and medicinal products are not new. Already in a 2008 Letter to Parliament, the Dutch Health Minister reported that there was insufficient clarity about the demarcation between medicinal products and herbal remedies. The Minister reported the issue that a herbal remedy could also be a medicinal product within the meaning of the Dutch Act of Medicinal Products (in which the Medicinal Products Directive 2001/83 has been implemented). This is a consequence of the fact that the Act does not make a distinction between the origin of any active substance, which can be of human, animal, vegetable or chemical origin. When a herbal preparation qualifies as a medicinal product by function or by presentation, the Act on Medicinal Products is equally applicable.
Measures announced in the Letter of Parliament
At the time, the Health Minister did not consider it necessary to adjust the regulations to prevent demarcation issues between food products and medicinal products. He considered the criteria of “medicinal product by presentation” and “medicinal product by function” to be sufficiently clear in the first place. Secondly, he expected a beneficial effect from the list of permitted health claims that still had to be published back in 2008. He anticipated that products bearing such claims would not qualify as a medicinal product by presentation. He did, however, consider it desirable to improve cooperation between the Heath Care Inspectorate and the Food Safety Authority. This was implemented by adjusting the Decree on Supervision of Public Health, as a result of which the Food Safety Authority gained authority to enforce violations of the Act on Medicinal Products. Furthermore, it was stipulated that the structured consultation between the Heath Care Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority and the Medicines Evaluation Board should be intensified, particularly regarding the discussion of the status of borderline products. One can say that this consultation in fact operated as an Advisory Group avant la lettre. Finally, it was determined that the already existing cooperation agreement between the Heath Care Inspectorate and Food Safety Authority had to be updated.
Demarcation issues more topical than ever
We now know that the clarification brought by the list of authorized health claims published in 2012 should not be overestimated. Nowadays many functional foods and nutraceuticals are marketed that claim medical properties. It quite often happens that it is not clear what is the applicable legislation to these products, because the boundary between health claims, disease risk reduction claims and medical claims is not immediately clear in all cases. Even when no specific claim is used, it can be debatable whether a product is a medicinal product by function or any other health product. It also happens that more or less the same products are marketed simultaneously as a medicinal product and as a foodstuff. Consider, for example, products containing glucosamine or St. John’s Wort. This means that food products containing the same active substance as medicinal products have not passed the prior testing for quality, safety and efficacy, which can be confusing for the consumer.
Consequences of product qualification
There are many examples of food products that were considered medicinal products by presentation. Consider, for example, the melatonin products which, after a remarkable turn in the Health Care Inspectorate policy, initially not but later on were considered to be medicinal products. More recently, a medical claim that Milk Thistle could prevent liver fattening was considered misleading. Furthermore, it was determined that a dietary supplement that would promote the natural immune system, would have a beneficial effect on heart and blood vessels and would help to treat fatigue qualified as a medicinal product. When such disputes are dealt with before the Civil Court, quite often fines are imposed for violations of the Act on Medicinal Products, prohibiting, among other things, the marketing and advertising of medicinal product without a marketing authorization. When these disputes are submitted to the Advertising Code Committee, usually a recommendation is made to no longer use such misleading information based on these regulations and the Code on Public Advertising of Medicinal Products. In order to prevent such enforcement activities, manufacturers of health products have every interest in knowing in advance how their product qualifies. They then know which regime applies to their product and can take this into account in their communication (advertising campaigns).
Working method Advisory Group
How does the Advisory Group work and which aspects are covered by its advice? Upon request of one of the competent authorities, the Advisory Group advises on the applicable legislation to individual products, product groups or substances. This advice gives a motivated indication of the law that applies to the opinion of the Advisory Group at the time of assessment and given the available information. “Available information” refers not only to factual information but also to applicable case law, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The advice will be presented to the Healthcare Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority, the Medicines Evaluation Board and the Central Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects, who will subsequently respond to this within four weeks if so desired. If the responses give cause to do so, the Advisory Group reconsiders the advice and if necessary adjusts it. The advice is then recorded in its database, which is managed by its secretariat. There is also a possibility that the Advisory Council will not reach agreement on the applicable legislation. In such a case no advice is issued; this is also recorded in the database. The Advisory Group can also change its advice in the event of changes in the legal framework. The competent enforcement authorities must report those change to the Advisory Group, which registers an amendment to a previous advice in its database, if and when applicable. For clarity, the advice assesses neither the efficacy, safety or efficacy of medical products nor the content of any research protocols.
Added value Advisory Group
Can it be expected that the Advisory Group will make a substantial contribution to demarcation issues? In itself, the intensified co-operation between all the authorities involved, at market entry rather than upon enforcement during marketing, is to be welcomed. For example, in practice, food business operators also benefit from the working agreements between the Council on Advertising Health Products and the Food Safety Authority, on the basis of which health products bearing a “stamp” of said Council are in principle not exposed to enforcement actions by the Food Safety Authority. However, it appears from the currently published agreement between the parties involved in the Advice Group that only the enforcement authorities and not the individual manufacturers can request advice from the Advisory Group. This appears to be a missed opportunity, as is the fact that the efficacy of medicinal products remains explicitly outside the Advisory Council’s assessment. To qualify the essential character of a health product, efficacy is one of the essential factors. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the Advisory Group does not seem to address the issue of medical devices, while this qualification is closely linked to that of medicinal or food products. For example, cranberry pills against bladder infection qualify as medical devices and osmotic laxatives can be either medicinal products or medical devices.
Advice on market access for health products
For the time being, manufacturers of health products will continue to rely on private advice from qualified advisors on market access for health products. Nevertheless, the body of opinions to be produced by the Advice Group can be a valuable source of information, provided that its database will be publicly searchable. The rules of procedure of the Advice Group, which are yet to be made available, will have to provide clarity in this respect.
In their search for healthy foods, consumers nowadays often favour natural food products. But what is “natural” after all? Various interpretations could be given to this term. Amongst those figure unprocessed foods, foods without any chemical ingredients and organic foods. In reality, there is no harmonized concept of “natural foods” under EU food law. Food business operators should therefore mainly rely on the general principles of food information. In addition, they can use the nutrition claim “natural(ly)”, if and when applicable. Finally, they can turn to some specific pieces of EU legislation implementing the concept of “natural” for specific product an to a new ISO standard. This post aims to investigate what are the options for using the term “natural” based on the EU framework.
The most important principle under EU food law is that food information should not be misleading, in particular as to its characteristics, its nature and its composition. As such, it is prohibited to suggest that a food has particular characteristics, whereas in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics. For instance, certain additives, such as sweeteners or acids, may have a natural source, but the EU Additives Regulation does not make a distinction between “natural” or “artificial” (chemical) additives. Therefore, stating that a food product only contains natural preservatives could be misleading. The industry seems to have found its way around this issue. Instead of declaring an additive using the applicable E-number (for instance E 250 for sodium nitrate), the description of a natural compound having a similar technical function is used (for instance chard, having a similar preservative effect to sodium nitrate).
Where a food product naturally meets the conditions laid down in in the EU Claims Regulation for the use of a nutrition claim, the term “natural(ly) may be used as a prefix in the claim. For instance, if at least 20 % of the energy of the food product is naturally provided by protein, the claim “naturally high in protein” could be made regarding such product. Likewise, if a food product naturally contains at least 6 g fibre per 100 g product, the claim “naturally high in fibre” could be made. These claims should all relate to end products presented to consumers. As a B2B supplier of ingredients, you should therefore make the reservation to your clients that the admissibility of these claims depends on the mix of ingredients present in the end product.
The EU Flavouring Regulation constitutes a good example of targeted legislation with specific provisions on the use of “natural”. For instance, if the term “natural” is used to describe a flavour, the flavouring components should be entirely of a natural origin. Nevertheless, the term “natural flavouring” can be used in a situation where a clear relationship between different source materials in the flavouring component and the overall flavour-profile is lacking. For instance, an umami flavouring preparation consisting of certain vitamins and minerals in combination with certain fermentation media can still be labelled as “natural flavouring”.
The Dutch Advertising Code Committee (DACC) demonstrated in one of its decisions last year that the rules on the use of the term ‘‘natural’’ under the EU Flavouring Regulation can also be applied by analogy. The claim in the case in question related to BenBits chewing gum advertised as being “100 % natural”. A competitor denied that all ingredients used in this chewing gum were of a natural character. In deciding the dispute, the DACC took the expectation of the average, reasonably well-informed consumer as a starting point. Such consumer would expect the term “natural” to cover both the ingredients and the preparation processes used. BenBits could not demonstrate that the xylitol used in its product had been manufactured in accordance with one of the traditional preparation processes referred to in the EU Aroma Regulation, such as fermentation. The use of the claim “100 % natural chewing gum” was therefore considered misleading.
Recently, a new ISO standard was made available, containing technical criteria for food ingredients to be considered as natural. This standard is intended for use in B2B communications and conformity thereto helps to assure a level playing field and fair practices. According to this standard, food ingredients shall be considered as natural when certain criteria regarding both their source materials and their ways of processing are met. When a food product consists of various ingredients, for each ingredient these cumulative criteria should be met. An informative decision three in this standard helps its user decide whether or not a food ingredient is to be considered natural.
At Member State level, such as in the UK and in France, national guidance has been formulated for the use of the term “natural”. For instance, the UK Food Standard Agency issued guidelines for the use of this term and in France the Directorate General on Competition developed similar guidelines specifically targeting dairy products. These Guidelines, as well as relevant EU and national case law will be discussed during the Vitafoods session planned on 16 May from 11.20 – 12.00 AM. Hope to see you there!
Can unhealthy foods enter the ‘health halo’? The boundaries of health claims in the absence of nutrient profilesPosted: July 18, 2017 | |
To date, about 30% of pre-packed food products marketed in the EU have entered the ‘health halo’, attracting consumers by scientifically proven health benefits. The Claims Regulation provides that food products must comply with so-called nutrient profiles in order to bear health claims. Although the Commission had to establish these nutrient profiles by 2009, it is a well-known fact this has not yet been achieved. This might sound like a carte blanche for the food industry to guide consumers in their dietary decisions. Quite to the contrary, ‘common sense’ seems to set the boundary for food products that can carry health claims. The Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) recently demonstrated in the Dextro case (for an English summary, see here) that there is no unlimited freedom for advertising essentially unhealthy foods. This decision must be seen in the light of society’s battle against obesity and other adverse health effects related to food products high in fat, salt and sugar (“HFSS foods”). The current post puts the Dextro decision into context and aims to deduce some learning therefrom.
The German company Dextro Energy is known for its cubes almost entirely consisting of glucose. Back in 2011, the company requested the authorization of 5 claims stating the positive effects related to energy and muscle function that consumption of the cubes brings about. Examples include: “glucose supports normal physical activity” and “glucose contributes to normal muscle function.” Following the official procedure to have such a claim authorized, the cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of the glucose cubes and the claimed health benefits needs to be proven by EFSA. While EFSA did provide a positive opinion, this did not result in an authorized health claim. The Commission has the last say in the procedure, including political, social and economic concerns into its decision. In the Dextro case, the Commission reasoned that the claims conveyed a ‘contradictory and ambiguous message’ to consumers. Although the human body needs a certain amount of glucose, the claim contradicts the current trend of the equally scientifically underpinned advice to reduce of sugar intake. According to the Commission, additional statements or warnings would not make up for the misleading claims. Dextro Energy challenged, amongst others, the Commission’s discretion to disallow a scientifically proven health claim. Both the Court in First Instance and the Court of Appeal countered the company’s arguments.
Setting the scene: health claims on other sugary products
The decision of the ECJ did not come as a surprise. Last summer, the European Parliament rejected controversial caffeine claims on energy drinks. Similar to the considerations in the Dextro case, health claims on sugary products were feared to nudge consumers towards poor consumption choices. Also, the request by Kinder Chocolate for authorization of a health claim on milk contributing the child development has been rejected. This rejection took place on a different ground, as the request was considered to lack the required scientific underpinning. Barry Callebaut was more lucky with its request for authorization of a health claim on cocoa flavanols in cocoa beverages with cocoa powder, dark chocolate, capsules or tablets. The claim refers to a beneficial contribution to the normal blood circulation and so the maintenance of elasticity of blood vessels. Of course, this claim might stimulate chocolate consumption. The difference, however, lays in the fact that the focus is on cocoa flavanols as bioactive compounds in cocoa extract. As opposed to the aforementioned substances glucose and caffeine – which are already controversial themselves – no HFSS food is directly involved. The claim was approved in 2015, being the first in kind in the chocolate field.
Industry pleas for nutrition profiles
Nutrition profiles were meant to prohibit nutrition and health claims on essentially unhealthy foods. As their establishment took so long, thereby creating uncertainty for the industry, the European Parliament initially considered to call them off. However, as shown in the Dextro case, the absence of nutrient profiles caused the Commission to rely on the very general principle of misleading in the appreciation of the claims at stake. This is the key item in food information matters both embodied in the Claims Regulation (article 3 (a)) and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (article 7 (1)). As this concept of misleading is pretty broad and thereby not well-defined, food companies introduced a plea in favor of the establishment of nutrient profiles. This would shape the level playing field for all FBO’s and ensure that unhealthy foods cannot be promoted using health claims. Five leading food companies have recently called on the Commission in a public letter to take up its task of establishing nutrient profiles. Health and consumer organizations were also involved in the letter, arguing that a clear exclusion of nutrition and health claims on HFSS foods will benefit consumer behavior.
The road forward
To prevent ambiguous health claims, the prohibition of such claims on beverages containing more than 1,2% alcohol is already explicitly mentioned in Health Claims Regulation. Will claims on HFSS foods be limited in the same manner? The open letter by the industry and other relevant parties is a push into that direction. The establishment of nutrient profiles could mean that the beneficial health effects attributed to cocoa flavanols can no longer be used on those chocolate products classified as ‘unhealthy’, for instance due to their high sugar content usually present in milk choclate. However, at this moment, it cannot be predicted whether the Commission will take up its task after about 10 years of delay. Meanwhile, the ECJ backs the criterion of misleading to fill the regulatory gap. Based on the examples mentioned above, ‘common sense’ based on generally accepted scientific principles provides the line between acceptable use of health claims and misleading practices.
As demonstrated in the Dextro case, health claims on HFSS foods are perceived misleading in society’s current fight against obesity and other diet-related disorders. The ECJ backed a Commission decision rejecting Dextro’s claims, considering the pro-glucose plea contained therein to be in violation of the principle that food information should not be ambiguous and misleading This case is not the first of its kind. Other examples of claims possibly driving consumers towards unintended unhealthy food choices include caffeine in energy drinks. As a consequence, those claims were rejected too. The general learning that can be drawn from these cases is that claims should not be considered in isolation, but in the context of generally accepted scientific standards. As an advice to FBO’s considering filing or using such claim, I recommend not to lose an eye for the context in which the claim is used. This basically comes down using common sense when using or applying for health claims. Does not that make sense?
The author is grateful to Jasmin Buijs, intern at AXON, who co-wrote this post.
During the two days event in Wageningen, on 17 and 18 May this year, food start-ups will have the opportunity to give their best before an audience of seasoned investors. In the same time, those investors will have the chance to satisfy their appetite for tasty food start-ups. During this event, Karin Verzijden will moderate a debate between food start-ups on the convergence of food and health. The Q&A below provides a sneak peak into the topics that will be touched upon during that debate.
F&A Next: What is “healthy food” and to what extent food can contribute to health?
Karin: Although there is no such thing as a definition of healthy food, there are numerous guidelines on healthy diets. At the end of 2015, the WHO published a report that shocked food business operators (“FBO’s”), especially those involved in the meat industry. One of the WHO recommendations was to eat less processed meat, as the consumption of 50 g processed meat per day would increase the chance to develop colon cancer with 18 %. In line therewith, the Dutch dietary guidelines 2015 (“Richtlijnen Goede Voeding”) published by The Health Council propagate that a shift in the direction of a more plant-based and less animal-based dietary pattern improves health. In general it can be stated that according to various different health organisations, the consumption of certain foods or refraining therefrom can certainly contribute to health.
F&A Next: How do specific groups benefit from e.g. personalized food?
Karin: Specific groups of people may require specific types of food. For instance, it is known that elderly people recovering from surgery in the hospital lose a lot of muscle mass. They could benefit from so-called food for special medical purposes rich in protein. Anticipating that such food will enhance their recovery, this may in the end reduce hospitalization time and thereby costs. For the time being, this is as close as its gets to personalized food, but this may be different in future.
F&A Next: How “personal” is food likely to become and what type of legal issues may come into play?
Karin: In the future, it is conceivable that food will be delivered through the use of 3D-printing, both in a care setting and at home. In a care setting, one could imagine that very fragile patients having swallow problems could benefit from smooth printed food delivered on their plate in a very attractive way. When a hospital nutritionist would like to add extra vitamins or minerals, it is very likely that the upper limits laid down in the legislation on fortified foods needs to be taken into account. Furthermore, both in a home and care setting, interesting questions as to food safety may occur. For instance, when safety of 3D-printed food is compromised, who would be responsible for that? The manufacturer of the 3-D printing machine, the supplier of the raw materials or the user of the 3D-printing device, who in fact has promoted from a consumer into a “prosumer”? Finally, when 3D-printed foods hit the market as end products, they may be covered by the Novel Food legislation on new production methods. This would imply that such product would require a market authorization prior to marketing.
F&A Next: How can FBO’s communicate on potential health benefits of food without incurring the risk that they advertise a medicinal product or a medical device?
Karin: In the EU, there is a well-defined framework for nutrition and health claims to advertise health benefits of food products. A nutrition claim implies that a food product has certain beneficial properties in terms of nutrients and energy (“What’s in the product?”). Health claims state there is a relationship between food and health (“What does the product do?”) As long as the FBO sticks to the authorized claims (of the allowed variations) and they satisfy their conditions of use, there is no problem to be expected. FBO’s should however stay away from claiming that their food product can prevent or cure certain diseases, as they then clearly enter in to the medical arena. Based on criteria laid down medicinal products legislation, food and health authorities are authorized to take enforcement measures regarding food products that are advertised as having such medicinal properties. This can result into serious fines of six digits.
F&A Next: What actions are required from FBO’s to substantiate the health effects of their food products?
Karin: This depends on the type of claim made. For instance if the FBO claims his product is high in protein, he has to be able to justify upon request that the 20 % of the energy value of the product is provided by protein. When a FBO claims regarding a barley product that barley beta-glucans may reduce blood cholesterol, whereas high cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease, he should meet very specific criteria on the level of barley beta-glucan (3 g per day). Finally, when a FBO wants to obtain a so-called proprietary claim, he should initiate clinical trials in order to identify the relationship of cause and effect between a particular nutrient and its alleged health effect.
On 24 November last, the Dutch Life Sciences Conference took place in Leiden, the Netherlands. This conference brings together a large number of life sciences professionals from the Netherlands and abroad. One of this year’s sessions was dedicated to cross sector innovations, during which DSM, NutriLeads, i-Optics and Axon Lawyers shared their take on this topic. This post captures the legal presentation made during this session on cross over innovations, focussing on the applicable rules to borderline products. These rules are explained on the basis of landmark ECJ decisions and recent Dutch case law. The slides belonging thereto can be viewed here.
In order to demonstrate that it is not always easy to correctly qualify life sciences products, a few decisions from Dutch Courts and the Advertising Code Committee were discussed (see slides 3 – 7). According to a recent decision of the Dutch Supreme Court in the field of tax law, toothpaste and sun cream were surprisingly qualified as medicinal products. This case had been initiated in 2010 by two drugstores that were unhappy they had to pay the regular VAT rate of 21 % with respect to these products. According to the drugstores, these products qualified as medicinal products, to which a VAT rate of 6 % is applicable. Although their plea had been dismissed in two instances, the Supreme Court agreed with the drugstores that based on the presentation criterion (see below), both products indeed qualified as medicinal products, as they advertised therapeutic or prophylactic effects. With respect to toothpaste, this was due to the natrium fluoride protecting against caries and with respect to sun cream, the UVA and UVB filters were supposed to protect the skin against sunburn.
The case discussed above so far stands in isolation, but here are many cases that have shed light on the distinction between two categories of life sciences products, being food and medicinal products. Below you will find 5 criteria that will help you to apply this distinction. In slides 8 – 12, you will find the applicable legal sources.
- The legal product definitions should be taken as a starting point. Bottom line, medicinal products are products aimed curing, prevention or diagnosis of a disease, whereas food products are products intended to be ingested by humans.
- A distinction is being made between medicinal products by presentation and medicinal products by function. Extensive case law is available for the interpretations of these notions (see below). In case of doubt, the rules relating to medicinal products shall prevail.
- It is prohibited to advertise medicinal products without having a market authorisation. For advertising of food products, it is permitted to use authorised health claims, but it is prohibited to use medical claims.
- Medical claims are communications claiming that the advertised products improve health problems. It is a thin line between non-authorised medical claims and authorised disease risk reduction claims.
- The notion of advertising can be pretty broad. According to the Dutch Advertising Code it comprises any public and/or systematic direct or indirect recommendation of goods, services or views for the benefit of an advertiser, whether or not using third parties.
Medicinal Products by presentation
In the landmark ECJ case Van Bennekom, the presentation criterion to qualify medicinal products was introduced. The case related to a Dutch national, who was caught with large quantities of vitamin preparations for medicinal purposes in pharmaceutical form, however without any required pharmaceutical authorisations. Van Bennekom did not deny the facts, but he alleged that he was not marketing medicinal products, but food products. The ECJ ruled that for the sake of consumer protection, the presentation criterion not only covers products having a genuine therapeutic or medical effect but also those regarding which consumers are entitled to expect they have such effect. In sum, the presentation criterium should be broadly interpreted on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant factors. The concentration level of active ingredients forms only one of those factors.
Medicinal products by function
The ECJ Hecht-Pharma decision is still leading to set the parameters to decide if a product qualifies as a medicinal product by function. Hecht Pharma was marketing in Germany a fermented rice product in the form of capsules presented as being food supplements. Further marketing was prohibited, as the product contained significant levels of monalin k, which is an inhibitor of cholesterol synthesis. The product was considered as a medicinal product by function, for the marketing of which a market authorisation would be required. The ECJ ruled in this case that for the purposes of deciding if a product falls within the definition of medicinal product by function, the national courts must decide on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all characteristics of the product, such as its composition, its pharmacological properties and manner of use, the extent of its distribution, its familiarity to consumers and the risks, which its use may entail. As reported in a recent post, these criteria are still valid.
A recent Dutch decision on a licensing dispute entailed so-called functional foods. Although this notion does not have a legal definition under EU standards, it is usually understood as food having certain medicinal properties. The dispute divided Unilever and Ablynx, who both had obtained a license from the Brussels University (VUB) under certain antibody patents owned by VUB. Unilever’s licensed related to (roughly speaking) food products, whereas Ablynx’ license related to medicinal products. Under its license, Unilever developed so-called functional foods having certain beneficial effects against infections caused by the rotavirus. Ablynx claimed that Unilever had thus operated outside its licensed field and thereby acted unlawfully vis-à-vis Ablynx. The Hague Appeal Court endorsed Ablynx’ claims, on the assumption that Unilever’s license was clearly directed against non-pharmaceutical products. As such, it could target general health benefits (such as lowering cholesterol), but not specific pathogens.
What can you learn from the above? It is important to obtain pre-market clearance for the communication on health products. For this purpose, you can take guidance from the Advertising Code on Health Products (Code aanprijzing gezondheidsproducten), applicable to products having a pharmaceutical form and a health related primary function, however without being medicinal products. You could also request pre-market clearance from KOAG-KAG, whom actively evaluates claims on health products and provide endorsements. If and when you are confronted with enforcement measures by either the Dutch Health Care Inspectorate (Inspectie Gezondheidszorg or IGZ) or the Dutch Food Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel en Waren Autoriteit or NVWA), first try to buy some time by claiming an extension for response. Subsequently, carefully consider if the claims made by the enforcement authorities are factually correct and legally enforceable. Whenever helpful or necessary, obtain professional support.
Shock and awe: they did it! A few days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, many sectors are investigating the consequences thereof for the services and products concerned. The more a sector has been regulated at an EU level, the more severe those consequences tend to be.
EU landscape of food law
If any sector has been highly regulated at an EU level, it is the food sector. The BSE crisis in the ’90-ies gave rise to the General Food Law Regulation in 2002, which has been the basis for a considerable corpus of rules relevant for the nutraceutical sector. These rules include the Food Supplements Directive (2002) as well as the Regulation on Fortified Foods and the Claims Regulation (both from 2006), as well as the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (2011) and the Regulation on Foods for Special Groups (2013) to name just a few.
What is going to happen next?
Although it is difficult to imagine that years of laws and case law can be cast by a vote, strictly speaking the European Regulations will cease to apply in the United Kingdom once it no longer forms a part of the EU. Also, there will no longer be an imperative to implement European Directives into English national law. Access for European nutraceuticals to the UK market and access for English nutraceuticals on the EU market will therefore depend on the instruments replacing the common European framework.
What are the options?
Firstly, the UK could reach and agreement similar to the one that the EU has with Norway or Iceland. In that case, the impact in the field of nutraceuticals would be fairly limited; the UK forming part of the European Economic Area and to a large extent be bound by EU legislation. Secondly, if the relationship would be shaped after the one between the EU and Switzerland, the implications could be more important, as EU food law would not be of general application in the UK. Thirdly, the gap between the current and future situation would be even greater if the relationship will be similar to the one that the EU has with the USA under the WTO, as for each specific sector specific agreements would need to be negotiated.
The trigger and the transition period
In order to move to the next stage, the UK will have to inform the Council of its decision to withdraw from the European Union, based on the famous article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So far, the UK seems to be divided on the question when this process has to be initiated. Some (Europeans) speculate that it may not be initiated at all. However, once the Council has received notice from the UK, an agreement setting out the arrangements for withdrawal should be negotiated within two years. During this transition period, the EU regulatory framework for nutraceuticals shall – in principle – remain in force. However, it can be expected that food business operators shall anticipate on the shift in the regulatory landscape. The UK may become less attractive to trade nutraceuticals due to the uncertainly what will be the applicable rules there.
Open ends… or not?
Based on the EU regulatory framework, nutraceuticals generally do not require prior market approval. This implies that English nutraceuticals could in principle still be marketed in the EU after the Brexit becoming effective. However, any English nutraceuticals marketed in the European Union will have to meet the EU requirements regarding the type of vitamins and minerals that may or may not be used in food supplements and fortified foods respectively. Furthermore, English nutraceuticals to be marketed in Europe may only use those nutrition and health claims that have been authorized at an EU level and that bear information on ingredients and nutrition facts in line with the Food Information to Consumers Regulation. The other way round is much less clear, meaning that it will remain an open question for quite some time with what rules European nutraceuticals to be marketed in the UK will have to comply . This will depend on the rules applicable to nutraceuticals in the UK replacing the EU regulatory framework. Summarizing it seems that trading UK nutraceuticals in the EU will not become “easier” from a UK perspective, whereas marketing European nutraceuticals in the UK will become less attractive because of the regulatory flaw.
Homework on IP licenses
For those food business operators distributing nutraceuticals under license in the licensed territory of the European Union, it is mandatory to clarify whether or not that territory still includes the EU after a Brexit becoming effective. This will not only depend on the wording of the agreement but also on the trademark backing the license. If this is for instance an EU trademark (former Community Trademark), this will no longer be valid in the UK in future. Moreover, if the validity of this EU mark was mainly based on genuine use in the UK, the validity of the entire trademark could be at stake because such use would no longer be of relevance for the continued existence of the mark.
The majority of the British people do not seem to have done a favor to the nutraceuticals industry, to put it mildly. In order for English nutraceuticals to access the EU market, these products will have to meet the EU standards anyway. For European nutraceuticals to be marketed on the Brittish market however, it cannot yet be predicted to what rules they need to comply. It does not seem to be realistic that the UK will opt for the Norwegian model, as it deliberatly moved away from the EU and – presumably – from the EU regulatory framework. It is also hard to conceive that the UK, being such an important trade partner of the EU will put in the same position as the US under the WTO. Remains the Swiss model as a most likely option for the trade agreements to be negotiated between the EU and the UK, but the Swiss model currently also implies the free movement of persons, which is an issue for the UK. So this is not an easy one. Keep you posted.
Photo by Tolga Akmen/LNP/REX/Shutterstock (5738024r) Pro-EU campaigners protest against Britain leaving the European Union in Trafalgar Square – London Stays anti-Brexit demonstration, Trafalgar Square, London, UK – 28 Jun 2016. The referendum was won by the leave campaign and caused Prime Minister David Cameron to resign on 23 June 2016.
The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) has been pretty active this Summer. Following up on previous enforcement reports on nutrition claims, it recently published such enforcement report re. both nutrition and health claims for breakfast cereals. As this report relates to legislation that has been harmonized at an EU-wide level and it provides detailed enforcement information, this is an interesting read – not only for the Netherlands.
Less than 50 % fully compliant
Actually, the report publishes data on the review of claims regarding 126 different breakfast cereals marketed under 24 different brands. These data were compiled during the period between March – October 2014. From this review, It appeared that less than half of those products were fully compliant with the Claims Regulation. The NVWA considers it of the essence that Food Business Operators (FBO’s) offering for sale breakfast cereals fully comply with the Claims Regulation to enable consumers to make informed choices.
Nutrition and health claim framework
Since the entry into force of the Claims Regulation on 1 July 2007, only authorized claims can be used for food products. A claim is a message or representation in any form, that is not mandatory under EU law or national legislation and that states, suggests or implies that a food has certain characteristics. A nutrition claim is a claim that states or implies that a food has particular beneficial nutritional properties in terms of energy and/or nutrients. A health claim is a claim that states or implies there is a relationship between food and health. Amongst the health claims, a distinction is made between general claims, disease risk reduction (DRR) claims and claims relating to the health and development of children. In 2012, the Commission published a list of 222 authorized general claims that is dynamic and has currently evolved into 229 claims. Furthermore, there are currently 14 authorized DRR claims and 11 children’s claims. For both nutrition and health claims, strict conditions of use are applicable. For instance, in order to claim that a product is high in proteins, at least 12 % of the energy delivered by the product should be provided by proteins.
Method of enforcement
Contrary to previous claims enforcement reports that only related to nutrition claims, the NVWA this time also took into account health claims. More concretely, it report relates to pre-packed breakfast cereals that were offered for sale in the Netherlands at both retail and wholesale level. If the products at stake were advertised at websites as well, such information was also subject to enforcement. The products at stake consisted of granola, corn flakes, puffed rice grains, oatmeal and wheat meal, some of them supplemented by nuts, sugar, dried fruits or chocolate. The information reviewed was the name of the product and the nutrition labelling, in as far as related to nutrition and health claims. A warning letter was sent to those FBO’s whose products were not compliant, except when an unauthorized claim was used. In those cases, a fine was imposed under the suspensive condition of full compliance within a grace period. When I contacted the NVWA to know the average amount of such fine, I was informed that my query would be answered within 6 weeks. Apparently, the Summer scheme is still on at NVWA – too bad. But an update will be provided at FoodHealthLegal when more information is available.
Outcome of enforcement
As mentioned above, out of the 126 products that were reviewed, over half of them did not fully comply with the Claims Regulation, mostly because the claims used were pretty vague. Although it is permitted to use a variation on an authorized claim, the essence thereof should be the same as an authorized claim. An example of a claim that was sanctioned by the NVWA is “The cereals present in this product are the basis for a healthy and nutritious breakfast. It contains nutrients that are indispensable for the human body and that are quickly absorbed by the body.” Another reason why products were not compliant was that non-existent nutrition claims were used, such as “does not contain cholesterol” or “ contains many nutrients”. Furthermore, sometimes nutrition claims were made, whereas the strict conditions of use were not met. Although this is not visible from the product label, such is a violation of the Claims Regulation as well. Finally, on many products, the link between a specific nutrient and the health claim used on the labelling was missing. Instead, pretty general, non-specific, claims were made that can be quickly taken in by the consumer, but also easily be misunderstood. Therefore, such general, non-specific claims are only allowed if accompanied by a specific, authorized, health claim. For example, the claim “Crisply granola of brand X forms part of a healthy and nutritious breakfast” cannot be used alone, but it can be used jointly with an authorized claim for iron, like “Iron contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism”.
The fact that the NVWA nowadays actively enforces health and nutrition claims shows that it considers B2C communication on food product to be an integral part of food safety. From our practise I know changing the packaging of your food products is a lot of hassle, so better get it right as from the start. Here are a few tips to help you along.
- At all times, it should be avoided to made a medical claim with respect to food products. Medical claims are claims directed at the prevention or treatment of a disease. Their use, if allowed at all, is strictly reserved for pharmaceuticals.
- If you consider the authorized claims are not persuasive or sexy enough, choose one of the variations published by the self regulatory body KOAG-KAG.
- Make sure you have data supporting the nutrition facts of your food product, as the burden of proof lies with the FBO when receiving a request pertaining thereto from the NVWA.
- When using general, non-specific claims, use the specific, authorized claim in the same field of vision.
- When in doubt, or if you simply need a sparring partner, consult an expert.