Will big business have the clout to prevent much-needed wholesale reform of the EU's health claims evaluation process?
Many Europeans take their holidays during August. And this isn't the first time that we've seen the European Commission (EC) launch a major consultation via the EU Member States smack in the middle of this holiday period. The consultation in question relates to the fate of health claims for botanicals, the evaluation of which – by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – was put 'on hold' around 2 years ago. The reason for the delay? EFSA had rejected around 97% of claims following their preliminary evaluation.
Consumers need more — not less – information about plant-derived foods
Getting this right is a pretty big deal, in our view. Plants, and products derived from them, are the single most important group of foods we eat. Allowing what the EC calls the status quo in its discussion paper circulated to Member States (and not made available on the Internet), is unthinkable when one considers the range of conditions and chronic diseases suffered by Europeans in this contemporary age. Take the all-pervading metabolic syndrome, for instance, which is now suffered by the majority of over-40s in most European countries and leads to diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Metabolic syndrome is caused, at least in part, by inadequate consumption of fruits, vegetables and other plant and micro-organism-derived foods that EFSA loosely refers to as 'botanicals'.
Will Big Business proceed with its health claims ‘lock-out’ strategy?
The consultation is only open to interested parties invited to participate by Member State competent authorities – in our case, the UK Department of Health. Our own response draws attention to the calamity that will occur without major reform of the health claims evaluation process. We know that many other representatives of natural interests, along with manufacturers and suppliers of health foods, feel similarly. It is more difficult to predict the response of those interests representing the biggest food corporations, especially the likes of FoodDrinkEurope and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Between them, these two represent the majority of Big Food and Big Ag players, such as Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Kraft, Kellogg and Monsanto, as well as the world's largest Pharma players, such as Pfizer and GSK.
These mega players have not only been intimately involved in creating the regulatory system that looks set to decapitate health claims for plant-based substances – they have also been consistently supportive of this so-called status quo. You don't need a degree in politics and economics, or criminology for that matter, to work out what the motive for these companies might be. In simple terms, it seems that their strategy is to prevent the vast majority of smaller players from accessing the health claims regime, while allowing the biggest corporations to buy their way in, using scientific criteria that only the largest corporations can afford. And lo and behold, the health claims lock-out mechanism currently embedded in the NHCR is activated!
Or will common sense — and nutritional science —prevail?
We are hopeful that all consultations will go on public record – and that common sense will prevail over profiteering. It would indeed be a reminder of the strange world in which we live if companies – or their trade associations – were to opt for the status quo in their consultation responses. How can anyone cognisant of the nutritional sciences, and the cumulative research performed on botanical substances, accept a situation in which only a handful of botanical substances are deemed to have a beneficial function in human beings? Such a situation, as preposterous as it might sound, is exactly what will happen unless there is a sea change in the approach taken by European authorities.
In ANH-Intl's consultation response, we point to possible ways forward. But, we argue, the problem is deeply entrenched within the existing text of the NHCR and EFSA's approach to scientific substantiation, much of it modelled on guidance developed since 1997 by inter-governmental consensus in the Codex Alimentarius Commission.
We'll keep you posted either way
We will be submitting our comments on this crucial issue before the 30th August deadline, and we’ll keep you informed as to the responses we, and others, receive. We’ll also update you as and when more information becomes available from the European authorities.