MEPs in first health claim veto attempt - EU Food Policy article

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The following article is reproduced with kind permission of EU Food Policy 

MEPs in first health claim veto attempt

by Kate Trollope

The first formal attempt to veto a health claim authorisation was made last  week by a member of the European Parliament.The Socialist MEP, Glenis Willmott, says there are concerns over the scientific evidence on DHA in baby milk and the claim about eyesight. 

She wants the Parliament to use its regulatory powers to block the claim which states that DHA "has a structural and functional role in the retina and contributes to visual development". Mrs Wilmott interprets that to mean that the fatty acid can improve children's eyesight.

The claim was approved by the Standing Committe on Food Chain and Animal Health in December following a positive Opinion from EFSA.

The British MEP has written to the chair of the Environment, Food Safety and Public Health Committee, Jo Leinen, to formally ask for a discussion in committee on the claim.

Other MEPs such as Asa Westlund (Swedish Socialist) are expected to support her. Whether she gets the co-ordinators of the political groups to agree to the debate will depend on how many others object to the claim.

Mrs Willmott said: "It is clear that there are concerns about the scientific evidence that would support a claim like this. We simply don't know enough about how DHA functions when delivered by the bottle."

She said that if the fatty acid was proven to be beneficial to baby's health when used in formula milk then it should be included in all products.

"If the link hasn't been proven then companies shouldn't be allowed to make this claim."

No public scrutiny

Mrs Willmott said baby milk was a very special product and that the decision had been taken "without public scrutiny".

"I want to have a proper debate about whether this kind of claim is appropriate and I want to have that debate in public," she said.

The Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health authorised three DHA claims at its December meeting. 

These were transmitted to the European Parliament in January, which has three months in which to muster an absolute majority if it is to succeed in vetoing the health claims under the comitology rules.

Stephen Pearse, Socialist Party spokesman, said a vote in plenary would have to take place in the April session.

He said the basis of the veto would be that authorising such a claim went against the fundamental aim of the legislation (health and nutritional claims) which was to help people choose a balanced diet and ensure they were not misled. 

The claim, submitted for Enfamil Lipil made by Mead Johnson, is interpreted by MEPs as saying DHA improves a baby's eyesight. Its authorisation was approved by the Standing Committee by a qualified majority. The Committee rejected other claims that DHA optimised brain development.

EU Food Policy reported earlier this month that MEPs were taking advice on challenging the claims (21 January 2011).

The Standing Committee took more than a year to agree the DHA claims because the initial Opinions from EFSA gave different verdicts on DHA for different applicants. The committee sought further advice from the Authority on the scientific issues. 

Last year, MEPs used similar Parliamentary procedures to veto the Standing Committee's approval of the glue meat, thrombin. 

If Mrs Wilmott gets the go ahead for a debate in committee, she would then present a report (in English). If the Committee supports her argument, the proposal for a veto would be put to a vote in plenary.

Under current EU rules, the DHA claim would not be allowed in infant formula for babies under the age of six months because so far the annex in the relevant legislation is closed.  It would only be allowed on formulae for older babies.

The campaign to veto the decision is led by the UK based Baby Milk Action Group.