EU’s health claims deadlines are “a fantasy land”

Thousands of health food product packs will need to be “comprehensively re-engineered to absurdly short deadlines,” the executive director of the Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA), Graham Keen, warned last week.

Keen was speaking at a special HFMA workshop on the European Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) in London.

Under the NHCR thousands of non-authorised claims (95% of the 1600 non-vitamin/mineral claims submitted for approval to the European Food Safety Authority have been placed on its rejected list) will be illegal from December 14, when the regulation’s transition period ends.

Keen told delegates: “Products placed on the market in good faith in December 2010 will be illegal in December 2012.”

“While the THMPD (herbals directive) had a seven year transition period and a full sell-through period,” he said, the “NHCR gives just six months, with no specific, defined sell-through. It beggars belief that we have to get this done by December. It’s fantasy land.”

Keen said the legal action that the HFMA launched in July (with the Dutch trade association NPN) had to be filed very quickly because of the very tight timeframe. He added: “Ultimately, this will be resolved in the courts. It’s a case of having to take to the barricades – it’s that serious”.

In the meantime, said Keen, the HFMA had to act as a responsible trade association: “Companies need to have a plan in place and we are working hard for our members to achieve a common-sense, pragmatic approach to post-deadline compliance”.

In addition to joining the HFMA, and taking advice from its in-house labelling and regulation specialists, Keen urged manufacturers and brand owners to work closely with their ‘home authorities’ (local authority Trading Standards) to identify issues and resolve potential problems.

But Keen noted “there are still more questions than answers” and he stressed that a caveat for the day’s proceedings would have to be “we won’t be able to give you definitive answers”.

The marketing manager of one leading supplements brand confirmed to NP the continuing uncertainty: “We are in an impossible situation. I find myself  constantly running to our technical team and saying ‘please tell what we can legally say’! This doesn’t just affect packaging, it’s all of our communications with consumers – and potentially those with the trade too. It’s unclear whether our trade catalogues can even continue in their present form.”

What’s affected – and how?

• All commercial communications are affected by the NHCR – including labelling, advertising, websites, POS and (in some situations) social media

• A ‘nutrition claim’ is any claim which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular beneficial nutritional properties

• A ‘health claim’ is any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, or one of its constituents, and health

• A ‘claim’ is any message or representation including pictorial or graphic that suggests or implies that a food has particular characteristics

• Descriptors such as ‘antioxidant’, ‘superfood’ and ‘probiotic’ may be construed as claims, and prohibited (in the absence of a supporting authorised claim)