Friday, 22 April 2005

We're Watching What You Eat!

In an extremely arrogant move, the EU has decided that Europeans are too simple-minded to be able to determine independently which foods are good for them and which foods are not. Forget the instinctual knowledge of good and bad foods and parents’ instructions on how to keep a balanced diet; the EU is going to decide for you.

Commonly referred to as the Nutrition and Health Claims directive, this ludicrous piece of legislation massively restricts the ability of manufacturers to market their products. Whilst the Commission claims that this legislation is needed to protect consumers from misleading information, this directive is not about accurate labeling. Everyone supports that, indeed it already exists under protections against false advertising. Rather, this is an example of mission creep by the European Union, expanding its role in public health policy.

The Commission’s proposal for the regulation of nutrition and health claims made on foods would create a huge new bureaucracy to verify and authenticate all the “health claims” based on an emerging science called “nutritional profiling.” Even the European Food Safety Authority, which has to carry out this onerous task, has reservations.

Among many serious shortcomings, a main problem of this legislation lies in food itself. Many foods do not necessarily fit easily into “good” or “bad” categories. For example, milk and cheese are both high in fat but also very high in calcium which is extremely important to children and women. Under this directive, foods’ bad qualities would prohibit manufacturers from marketing their good ones. Any claims regarding olive oil — a far healthier choice than lard or butter — would be banned from labels. Thus, touting olive oil’s ability to lower the risk of coronary heart disease by reducing blood cholesterol levels would be banned because of its high fat content.

Even brand names and food signposting schemes are not safe under the directive. Slimfast and Health Plus product names would be considered illegal under the health claims restrictions. “Digestive” biscuits would surely be forced off supermarket shelves. Healthy eating options, such as Tesco’s ‘healthy eating’ products and Sainsbury’s ‘Be good to yourself’ range would also have to go. It is even speculated that using labels that tie into national government campaigns such as the British “5 a day fruit and vegetable” campaign and the Swedes’ keyhole scheme would be prohibited. The campaign themselves, of course, would also be banned, as “generalized” health claims, although the British government is touting an amendment to protect its campaign.

Leading charities will also suffer. Implied health claims would prohibit charity logos from appearing on food packaging — ending schemes by which charities such as the British Heart Foundation raise hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. In addition to charity logos, association endorsements such as the British Dental Association’s accreditation of Ribena’s ToothKind soft drink will be banned. This type of government intrusion into the marketplace will remove any incentive industry has to put forward healthier products — leaving consumers with fewer healthy choices.

Ever eager to regulate people’s drinking habits, the Commission’s proposal puts the strongest restrictions on alcohol. Under the directive, no health claims whatsoever regarding beverages containing over 1.2 percent alcohol would be allowed. Familiar slogans such as “Guinness is Good for You” would be banned as well as “light” and “lite” beer labels. Despite consumer demand for low-calorie beverages and food, statements such as “low carbohydrate” or “low sugar” would also not be permitted.

What good will this legislation do? Misleading labels are already prohibited under false advertising claims. Meanwhile, consumers who are interested in the healthiness of their food can already readily access content information. However, those who currently fail to make healthy eating choices will not be influenced by marketing restrictions. If people are consuming all these officially designated “unhealthy” foods, how long will it be before some interfering EU bureaucrat starts calling for the foods themselves to be banned, rather than just their labels.

This directive is an extreme example of nanny state legislation. Laying the blame for rising obesity rates at the feet of the food and beverage industry, the European Commission is telling consumers that they are too inept to make the decisions between good and bad food and thus need the guiding hand of government. If Europe pursues this course much further, we may all be issued EU cook books and meal plans. Whatever happened to consumer choice?

By Martin Callanan MEP

The author is a Member of the European Parliament from Newcastle, UK. He serves on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee.

This article first appeared on http://www.techcentralstati…