Geoffrey Podger: Statement to the European Parliament Environment, Consumers and Public Health Committee, Brussels

Geoffrey Podger

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the Nutrition and Health Claims proposals with the Committee and provide information on EFSA’s perspective. I should very much like to take the opportunity also of thanking Members of the Committee who have supported EFSA since it became operational in June 2003.

Personally, I have always supported the principle of EU wide legislation on health claims as a necessary protection for European consumers. I also favour, perhaps more controversially, the development of a system of nutritional profiling – not to demonize individual foods but to help consumers continue to balance their diets. That said, the proposals we are discussing are properly from the Commission not EFSA and my task is to indicate to you the important technical and resource issues which they give rise to for EFSA.

On nutritional profiles, EFSA has planned to expand its external and internal scientific support to take forward this initiative. In our view the successful development of a system of nutritional profiles for the EU requires three attributes : an objective scientific approach, the involvement of stakeholders and time. We believe that the total process of initial consultation of stakeholders, a nine month period of Panel work and subsequent discussion would take two years rather than the eighteen months proposed.

Like any other reputable scientific body, we cannot offer “conveyer belt science”. We entirely accept the need for us to have indicative timeframes but do not believe that the three month period given to EFSA for examining individual claims will always be sufficient. We would prefer six months as being more reasonable to cover all cases. Finally, we do not see how it makes sense to ask EFSA to ensure that “the proposed wording of the health claims in all Community languages” is understandable and meaningful to consumers. Such an approval would require extensive testing of every version of every claim. This is not a risk assessment function and thus not within EFSA’s normal remit. Moreover, one has to ask what would be achieved by this laborious ongoing procedure over and above that which could be achieved by using the existing legal controls on misleading labeling against any manufacturer who appeared to misrepresent an agreed health claims. Much EFSA resource could be consumed in this activity to little obvious purpose.

In summary EFSA is ready to offer significant support to this proposal and in particular to develop with stakeholders (consumers and industry alike) over two years an objective scientific basis for nutritional profiling. We do not think thereafter that three months will always be adequate for assessing health claims and would like this to be adjusted to six months to allow for further scientific discussion. As well as new requests for information.
We believe the proposed role of EFSA in evaluating labelling is inappropriate, a misuse of resources needed for other areas of EFSA’s work, and unnecessary in any case.

I should be happy to reply to questions from the Committee.