Katherine Rich: In search of progress on health claims

There’s nothing more natural than wanting to know exactly what you’re eating. You know, how much juice is in the fruit drink or how much fruit is in the jam or relish. 

But there’s another vital piece of information about our food – and that is how healthy it actually is for you. Sometimes we know that’s not important because we are eating treat food – but on many occasions we do have an interest. And that leads directly to what food manufacturers can and cannot say around nutrient content and whether or not there are health benefits from the food – and, indeed, the evidence necessary to support such claims. 

This has been a vexed issue for many years now as industry and legislators grapple with what claims manufacturers can make on their food labels regarding nutrition and health. 

Developments continue, but maybe we are about to see a little light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel (or will it be the light of an oncoming train?). Because at the end of April, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) is expecting to publish, for ministerial consideration, its review of draft Standard 1.2.7 - Nutrition, Health and Related Claims, ultimately for inclusion in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. 

To put it into perspective it’s necessary to retrace the story up till now. 

Developments go back more than 15 years with industry involvement and support, but in 2008, drafting of the Standard took a ‘lock-down’ approach when self-substantiation of general-level claims was removed and replaced by regulator pre-approval of such claims. In an attempt to placate industry, FSANZ developed a suite of ‘food-health’ relationships that could be used immediately for general-level health claims. 

The intention of the lock-down was to provide a pre-approval framework for health claims on all food labels and related material, with the aim of reducing any involvement in substantiation by enforcement agencies on both sides of the Tasman. 

Claims covered by the Standard generally fall into three categories: 

  • Nutrition content claims, which describe or indicate the presence or absence of energy, a nutrient, or a biologically active substance. For example: “This food is high in calcium.”
  • General-level health claims, which refer to a nutrient or substance in a food and its effect on a health function (though they may not refer to a serious disease or biomarker of a serious disease). For example: “Calcium is good for healthy bones and teeth.”
  • High-level health claims, which refer to a nutrient or substance and its relationship to a serious disease or to a biomarker of a serious disease. For example: “This food is high in calcium. Diets high in calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.” 

Until 2008, FSANZ had proposed that all claims be substantiated with documentation, that qualifying criteria were to be specified, foods carrying general-level and high-level claims were to meet nutrient profiling scoring criterion, and food-disease relationships underpinning high-level health claims be pre-approved by FSANZ. It also proposed that food businesses could choose one of four methods to substantiate general-level health claims. 

But within months, theAustraliaand New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council was asking for a review of the draft Standard, saying it did not protect public health and safety, was difficult to enforce, and placed an unreasonable burden on industry and consumers. 

In 2009, FSANZ sought comment on a re-drafted Standard. The key change was the removal of self-substantiation for general-level health claims and the addition of a number of pre-approved food-health relationships that may be used by industry for general-level and high-level claims. Further additions to the list of food-health relationships would have to be made via application to FSANZ or by it assessing and adding as appropriate food-health relationships approved by other ‘recognised’ agencies, notably the European Union. 

Late in 2011, Ministers asked FSANZ to consult again before it presented its final report. Ministers also asked it to consider the inclusion of ‘fat-free’ and ‘% fat-free’ in the regulatory framework. This very late addition came somewhat out of the blue. 

The Food and Grocery Council has studied the latest version of the draft and has consulted members on a response. It was also to be considered by FGC’s Health and Technical Working Group prior to completion and submission by the March 30 closing date. 

The primary concern is that the Standard in its present form seems to go against the prevailing desire everyone has of less and better regulation. Pre-assessment of general-level claims and the removal of self-substantiation is a significant increase in regulation and will result in significant costs as a huge number of products are re-labelled for very little benefit. Pre-approval was only ever intended to apply to high-level claims. Prescribing a list of 115 food-health relationships would seem to add even more regulation around general-level claims for little or no benefit. 

New ZealandandAustraliaaren’t alone in tackling health claims. The European Union is undertaking extensive work on the issue. They have worked their way through thousands of claims applied for by industry but have so far, and after several years, approved none, although some 200 have been accepted for pre-approval and are waiting passage through the EU Parliament. This alone should indicate that timeliness has been lost to regulatory bureaucracy. 

Nonetheless, FGC will be watching the progress of that work carefully. Though there is much to be said for seeing how others, particularly those with world-class assessment processes, handle such an issue before we move, it is always instructional to learn from the mistakes of others, and this would seem one. 

There’s no doubt we need to make progress – heavens knows we have been waiting long enough. Food manufacturers need clear rules around what they can and cannot say on food labels. They want a claims regime which allows them to get on with the business of making food products and communicating with consumers. 

But we do need to get it right. All claims must be made responsibly and with evidence to back them up. Some claims being made in the marketplace by non-FGC members are both inaccurate and unable to be substantiated, and that must not be allowed to continue. The bottom line from any changes must be that if you make a claim you have to able to back it up.

I still shake my head when I read the back of a packet of dates imported from theMiddle Eastwhich I have in my office. Under the heading “Medical Effects”, the following statement appears: “Fresh Dates have proven to be used for their medical purposes. They have been administered for sore throat, colds, bronchial catarrh, and taken to relieve fever and a number of other similar complaints, such as flu.” 

Then: “One traditional belief is that Fresh Dates can counteract alcohol intoxication; therefore it is believed it neutralises alcohol’s negative side-effects.” 

It ends: “For pregnant women dates contain certain stimulants which strengthen the muscles of the uterus in the last few months of pregnancy. This would then assist in the dilation of the uterus at the time of delivery.” 

Good luck with proving all that! 

Finally, to the very late inclusion in the draft Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Standard of controls around the use of “fat-free” and “% fat free” claims. The FGC’s  study of this inclusion reflects what is seen by many in the industry as being short-sighted, not contributing at all to consumer understanding of food content, and not supported by sufficient evidence of harm. 

Let’s not forget that a major contributor to obesity is fat content, and being able to indicate whether an item is free of fat or how free of fat it is, is surely an essential part of educating consumers about the food they’re eating. Having said that, some manufacturers do themselves no favours by placing “fat-free” claims on high-sugar content products. 

Nonetheless, the ability of manufacturers to be able to continue to tell consumers what their products might deliver for the consumer is an important part of the health dialogue and of empowering the consumer to make choices that suit them, so they know more about what’s in their food and how healthy it is.