The heated debate on the labelling of foodstuffs in Europe and the thorny issue of health claims was fired up once again this week when UK press reports suggested that new proposals from the European Commission outline tough new measures.
With growing numbers of confectionery products playing the health card - from chewing gum to help clear the nasal passages to chocolate bars designed to give an energy boost - any serious tightening of the rules could be a major blow to many firms' marketing campaigns.
Commenting on the press rumours, a Commission spokesman responded: "As signalled in the White Paper on Food Safety , a review of all food labelling provisions was foreseen, part of which were health claims.
The Commission is therefore in the process of review its labelling policy on foodstuffs. This comprises nutritional labelling given on food and specific claims made about the effect of foodstuffs."
The White Paper on Food Safety was cleared at the beginning of last year with the topic of health claims featuring high on the agenda. European countries are currently discussing the issue at both a national and European level. In the UK, the Joint Health Claims Initiative has been working on new voluntary rules for the food industry that seek to clarify labels and ensure that the consumer is not hoodwinked.
The Commission spokesperson reiterated yesterday that the European Commissioner David Byrne strongly believes that consumers should not be fooled by labels on food. A view that will clearly bear weight on the new proposals for tougher labelling rules.
"Already today, an EU directive on labelling, presentation and advertising prohibits clearly that advertising for foodstuffs shall not be misleading or false. If you take a stroll through a supermarket you will find many examples to the contrary," said the spokesperson.
"For example: 'excellent for your organism', 'helps your body resist stress', 'purifies your organism' - these claims are vague and often meaningless, but also they are also often not verifiable."
Additional claims that will receive sharp treatment if the Commission proposals are accepted are those that may be misleading due to the way in which they are expressed, even if they are factually true. For example, claims stating that a product is '90 per cent fat-free' may be true, but there is an argument that suggests they imply that the product has a low fat content while it actually contains 10 per cent fat which, for the majority of products, is not considered to be a low fat content - another area which could well have implications for the confectionery industry, where consumers are increasingly looking for indulgence without the fat, a request to which producers are increasingly keen to respond.
"I cannot comment on the details of the proposal at this stage, but it will have as an objective to give clear and reliable information to consumers and provide for claims that can be proven," affirmed the Commission spokesperson.