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EU Regulator Targets Food Health Claims

The chief of Europe's food safety agency is going after producers of energy drinks and "probiotic" dairy products for making unscientific health claims

By Valentina Pop | Business Week

Food companies making bogus claims about the effects of products such as "probiotic" yoghurts or taurine-based energy drinks will need to rethink their marketing campaigns, the EU's food safety agency chief, Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, has told this website.

The Parma-based European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) recently issued scientific opinions rejecting claims that so-called probiotic yoghurt drinks with "good bacteria" improve the consumers' health and immunity systems.

Although companies Danone (DANO.PA) and Yakult (YKLTF.PK) did not take part in this round of evaluation, the ruling may impact marketing campaigns for their probiotic best-sellers such as Activia, Actimel, and Yakult.

EFSA also found that the so-called taurine ingredient found in energy drinks such as Red Bull does not stimulate the "mind and body" to the extent that companies claim it does.

Speaking in Brussels after a hearing in the European Parliament's environment and food safety committee, Ms Geslain-Laneelle said that the EFSA opinion will not force companies to withdraw their products.

"In terms of impact, it's not about withdrawing the product from the market, but the European Commission will use our scientific advice and since the claim is not substantiated, it is likely they will ask the company to withdraw the claim, not the product," she said.

"Of course we are aware that some of the products exist just because of the claim, but that's not our problem," the French food safety expert added.

Asked about potential attempts from food giants to influence the scientific opinion in their favour, Ms Geslain-Laneelle said experts were rigorously scrutinised.

"We ensure there is no bias, ask them to fill out a declaration of interests – declare all interests they have in the opinion. If an expert did a study funded by a company, he won't be able to work on a claim for a product sold by this company or a competitor of this company," she said.

Scientific panels ruling on a particular claim are composed of 21 experts from various member states, selected on competence criteria. "It's easy to influence one or two, but 21 is far more difficult," Ms Geslain-Laneelle explained.

Set up in 2002 after several food scares, including notably mad cow disease, EFSA is a body of 450 civil servants and 1,500 independent scientific experts. It carries out risk assessments on the potential spread of contaminated food products. Last year it looked into the melamine scare over milk products from China and dioxine in Irish pork.

The EFSA chief said there is a need for improved data collection from member states, because national authorities tend to supply non-comparable data or incomplete information.

The agency is currently considering carrying out a pan-European survey on eating habits to evaluate consumer risk, she added.

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