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Dysfunctional rules.

Functional foods are being stymied by the conflict between attractive advertising and health claim accuracy.

Functional foods -- those that help health as well as appetite -- hold out tantalising prospects.

Consider their potential: strong demand from health conscious consumers offers premium pricing opportunities. And an infinite number of brand extensions and product launches should flow seamlessly as food science delivers new breakthroughs.

But there is a snag -- a major one. Promoting functional food in Britain has become a two hands tied behind the back activity. Legal complexities over definitions befog the issue of health claims. Very little can be said that is both exciting to the public and acceptable to the authorities.

The difficulties marketers experience is shown by the lengthening list of complaints against functional food packaging claims upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority. Food giants such as Unilever, Nestle, St Ivel and Kellogg have all fallen foul of the rules -- in some cases over functional products selling in vast quantities on the continent.

Last week, Danish group MD Foods withdrew its Pact range of functional spreads, orange juice and yogurt (The Grocer, Jan 16, p5), blaming poor sales on the restrictions imposed by the combination of the Food Safety Act 1990, the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 and the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. In its home country, Pact with Omega-3 spread is market leader. MD Foods has had several run ins with the ASA over Pact, most recently over its claim folic acid added to yogurt "may help reduce the risk of heart disease".

Lobby group the Food Commission said there is no substantiated link between the two. Pact withdrew the ad, but is still braced for an unfavourable ASA ruling.

Said an exasperated spokesman: "Although Pact has established a strong and loyal following among those interested in health, it has been unable to go mainstream and build on this."

A distinction between a small group of consumers well informed on health matters and an ignorant majority goes to the nub of the problem. An intelligent minority know what to look for and what signs to read.

Unfortunately for manufacturers, their target audience mostly comprises consumers whose scientific knowledge and ability to judge health claims is negligible. Noise is needed to show them the benefits of the functional food.

The mistake of Pact and others -- according to the ASA -- has been to exaggerate the potential benefits and make a direct connection between, say, a cholesterol lowering product and a reduction in the likelihood of heart disease.

Manufacturers acknowledge the honourable intention behind the advertising restrictions and the need to protect the naive. But, on the other side of the coin, many are now also acknowledging the impossibility of conveying accurate scientific information in a time pressured retail environment.

For the past four years, the CWS has been calculatedly drawing attention to the absurdity of regulations on folic acid in food. The Department of Health spends millions promoting the value of folic acid to prevent spina bifida in pregnant women.

Yet the government prohibits this claim from being made on a folic acid rich functional food. So the CWS has put the claim on own label foods containing folic acid. Manchester's trading standards officers have been happy to turn a blind eye.

In July last year the Joint Health Claims Initiative produced a code intended to help manufacturers. It agreed to establish a mechanism for offering pre-market advice for innovative health claims. And it also called for a new framework governing health claims, saying: "The present system is too permissive in some areas and too restrictive in others, with many areas of uncertainty."

So far, there has been no response to their call.

John Young, director of information at Leatherhead Food RA, has sympathies with the manufacturers. "Food manufacturers are saying they have a right and duty to inform consumers about healthy eating, but can't. A change in the law is required."

Wendy Wrigley of the CWS backs his call and urges adoption of the American system which allows certain medicinal claims to be made, such as: `X contains soluble fibre, which may reduce the risk of heart disease' or `X is low in fat and a source of fibre, which may reduce the risk of some types of cancer'.

Two major launches planned for early this year will help provoke fresh debate. Unilever is hoping for EU approval to bring its anti cholesterol spread into Britain. And in early spring, Raisio hopes to unveil Benecol, its cholesterol reducing spread which has been selling phenomenally in Finland since 1995 despite costing six times the price of margarine.

Raisio is working with the American pharmaceuticals group Johnson and Johnson. Other manufacturers see themselves in deadly rivalry with drugs companies for the functional food market. As they compete to push back the boundaries of what is permissible, investing billions in the process, so demands for a clearer legal framework will become more insistent.
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Comment:Legal complexities concerning health claims are making it difficult to effectively market functional foods in Britain.
Author:Pring, Andrew
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 23, 1999
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