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Health claims issue in Australia and New Zealand nears final chapter

By Ankush Chibber , 19-Dec-2012

Parties on both sides of table have welcomed the recent decision by Australian and New Zealand ministers responsible for food regulation on the issue of health claims in the region.

In a meeting earlier this month of the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation, the ministers approved the long-discussed draft Standard for Nutrition, Health and Related Claims, clearing the way for it to be a law in 2013. 

Higher the claim, tougher the diligence

Under the new standard, general level health claims (e.g. “calcium is good for strong bones”) are allowed to be supported by either pre-approved or industry self-substantiated food health relationships. 

However, high-level health claims (e.g. “calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis”) will require pre-approval by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) without exception.

On the whole, all health claims will be required to be supported by scientific evidence and will only be permitted on foods that meet specific eligibility standards, including nutrition criteria. 

According to a communiqué from the forum, when gazetted, food businesses both in Australia and New Zealand will have three years to meet the requirements of the new Standard.

In the meantime, FSANZ will work with industry, public health, and consumers to refine the nutrient profiling scoring criteria and developing a process to maintain the scientific currency of pre-approved food-health relationships.

Kiwi industry welcomes decision

Katherine Rich, chief of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), said that the decision would provide a big boost for both consumers and export manufacturers in the country—even though it would be at an initial cost.

“Not only will it help ensure consumers to have greater confidence that health claims are evidence-based, it also supports manufacturers in making claims on innovative products for important export markets,” she said.

Rich pointed out that the decision would promote innovation and assist businesses making proprietary claims in export markets—fitting perfectly with the government’s aim of doubling exports by 2025.

“The inclusion of pre-approved food-health relationships in the new standard has provided a great starting point, especially for small-to-medium-size businesses that might develop their individual claims within the parameters of the food-health relationship,” she said. 

Rich also admitted that there are some wrinkles in the system—for example, the nutrient-profiling scoring criteria—but that could be refined over time by all the stakeholders innovating. 

Health groups buoyed by decision too

Health groups cheered the decision on too, with the Heart Foundation in Australia coming out in support of the forum and its method of making pre-approvals necessary for high-level claims.

Dr Lyn Roberts, CEO of the Heart Foundation, said the regulation of health claims made about foods was a win for consumers that have been misled for years into buying unhealthy foods.

“Research showed that when consumers see products that have health claims, they assume they relate to all nutrients in the product. Now that food manufacturers have to support their health claim with scientific evidence, it will give consumers confidence in the products they are buying,” she added.

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