Nigel Sunley

Health claim tweaks to new labelling regulations expected

The tough restrictions on health claims in R146 (the regulations governing labelling of foodstuffs in SA) are likely to be amended soon. But, cautions Nigel Sunley, a leading food industry consultant and part of the Consulting in Food Labelling team, the new parameters will not equate to any significant relaxation of the law.

“The reality is that R146 in its present form prohibits all health and nutrition claims other than those specifically permitted for nutrient content and comparative claims. The Directorate of Food Control has indicated that an amendment will in all probability be published that will allow existing properly-motivated claims to be retained after R146 becomes effective in March 2012,” says Sunley. “However, only those claims that have been approved by a credible authority such as EFSA or the FDA will be permitted – and EFSA is notorious for its strictness in authorising claims.”

One product that comes to mind as a beneficiary of this change would be Unilever’s Flora pro.activ margarine, which would presumably have otherwise become illegal as of 1 March 2012.

This raises the issue of timing – clearly the proposed amendment needs to be in place by then, otherwise a ludicrous situation would arise in which production of these products with acceptable claims would have to stop, only to resume when the amendement is actually published.

Sunley stresses: “The mooted amendment is unlikely to make life any easier for local food companies and marketers wishing to make new claims – it will mainly benefit those companies who have made a major effort to ensure their products really do deliver what they are supposed to deliver. Any SA food manufacturer contemplating health or nutrition claims on their products would be well advised to do their homework very carefully and not be lulled into complacency by talk of amendments to R146.”

So many of the less well motivated existing claims will still have to be dumped after March 2012 and it appears that approval of any new claims will probably have to await the elusive Phase 2 of the labelling regulations, whose timing remains a total enigma as it will be dependent on, among other things, development of nutrient profiling and claim evaluation procedures for local use – and these will take significant time to finalise.

“The message to manufacturers, in the meantime, has to be to proceed with considerable caution and rein in marketing hotheads if you want to avoid problems, not only with the the labelling regulations themselves but also with the CPA, which takes a very dim view of any misleading promotional information conveyed to consumers – and that undoubtedly includes unsubstantiated health and nutrition claims,” he advises.

“On balance, it’s probably a good thing that the Department of Health is taking a fairly hard-nosed view. In reality, the big question remains: what about enforcement?”

Nigel Sunley: [email protected]