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For Immediate
March 26, 1999

For more information:

U.K.:Tim Lobstein 44.171.837.2250

Japan: Jun-ichi Kowaka 81.3.5276.0256

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Executive Summary
U.S. News Release March 25, 1999
Full Report

  Consumer Groups Call for Greater Regulation of “Functional Foods”
Claims are Misleading, Ingredient Safety Unproven

Leading consumer-advocacy organizations in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, called for a crackdown by government regulatory authorities on the marketing of so-called “functional foods” made with herbal medicines, amino acids, plant extracts, and other unconventional ingredients. The groups urged that authorities ensure that all such ingredients are safe and that label claims are valid. “Functional foods” typically tout the health benefits of ingredients that have drug-like effects on the body.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food Commission UK, and the Japan Offspring Fund — charter members of the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO) — released a report entitled “Functional Foods — Public Health Boon or 21st Century Quackery.” The IACFO report details how companies around the world use regulatory loopholes to market “functional foods.”

“Regulatory authorities are failing to protect the public from questionable ingredients and misleading claims,” stated Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and President of IACFO. “Functional foods hold much promise, but without effective regulation may become the snake oil of the next century,” he said.

For example:

  • Hain’s Chicken Broth and Noodles with Echinacea is sold in the U.S. The label claims that Echinacea helps “support the immune system.” The soup is labeled as a “supplement” in an attempt to evade government requirements for food additives and label claims.

  • Brain Gum is a chewing gum sold in the U.S. that claims to “improve concentration.” It contains phosphatidylserine, a fat-like substance extracted from soybeans that is also found naturally in brain cells. The food is sold as a “dietary supplement” presumably to avoid government rules regarding food.

  • VegitaBeta is an orange-colored soft drink sold in Japan. The label states that the beverage, which is manufactured by Coca-Cola, is a “health-supporting drink” made with five vegetables and fruits rich in beta-carotene. The drink contains small amounts of fruit and vegetable juice, but the primary ingredients are sugar and water. Much or all of the beta-carotene is added in supplement form, which does not provide the health benefits associated with diets rich in foods that naturally contain beta-carotene.

  • Fibe-Mini is a fiber-fortified beverage and is officially certified by the Japanese government as a Food for Specified Health Use (FOSHU). The manufacturer, however, also sells a similar, but unapproved product, called Fibe-Mini Plus that is fortified with fiber and beta-carotene. The products are displayed in stores side-by-side and it is difficult for consumers to distinguish the approved from the unapproved product.

  • Omega sliced white bread is sold in the UK. The label states that omega-3 fatty acids in the bread “may influence the fats in the blood in a way that is healthier for the heart” and is loaded with heart-shaped symbols. The UK has no official standards stipulating how much scientific evidence must exist before such claims can be made.

In its report, IACFO detailed how companies take advantage of lax regulatory environments to market products of questionable benefit.

“In Japan, products are marketed simply as ’health foods’ in order to escape the FOSHU approval process. In the U.S., companies sell functional foods as dietary supplements to evade FDA regulations for label claims. In the UK, there is no pre-market approval system for label claims at all,” Silverglade said.

“Consumers may be deceived when governments give companies free rein to market health foods. We urge regulatory agencies around the world to recognize the need for greater control and to adopt measures to protect consumers,” stated Jun-ichi Kowaka, Secretary General of the Japan Offspring Fund.

Multinational food manufacturers are calling on international regulatory bodies such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission (a division of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization) and governments in Europe, the U.S., and Japan to move in the opposite direction by reducing regulation of functional foods.

“The regulatory approach being suggested by the food industry has led to chaos wherever it has been tried. In the absence of adequate government controls, food companies will create a marketplace free-for-all of false health promises and misleading claims,” stated Tim Lobstein, Executive Director of the Food Commission UK.

The IACFO report recommended that:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require that functional ingredients be proven safe; require that claims be approved by the agency prior to marketing; prohibit companies from selling “functional foods” as dietary supplements or “medical foods” to escape FDA regulations for foods; work with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to develop a consistent policy for claims in advertising and labeling; and require that labels list the amount of functional ingredients contained in a serving and, if appropriate, warning information.
  • The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare expand its system for approving Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) to cover all health foods marketed with “functional” ingredients, raise standards for FOSHU approvals, limit the role of the Japan Health Food and Nutrition Association in the FOSHU approval process, and prohibit FOSHU approval for candies and other foods with low nutritional value.
  • The UK government support the issuance of a directive by the European Union (EU) requiring pre-market approval of functional foods and nutrition labeling of all foods, charge the forthcoming Food Standards Agency with implementing the directives in the UK, and issue specific regulations for functional foods based on provisions of a voluntary code developed by the Joint Health Claims Initiative (a partnership formed by food companies, consumer groups, and local trading standard authorities).
The International Association of Consumer Food Organizations was formed in 1997 to ensure that consumer interests are better represented in the global food trade and before international regulatory bodies charged with harmonizing food safety and labeling standards.

Members of IACFO accept no financial support from the food industry.

  • International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO)
  • Association Internationale des Organisations de Consommateurs de Produits Alimentaires
  • Asociación Internacional de Organizaciones de Alimentos para el Consumidor
  • Internationaler Verband der Nahrungsmittel Organisationen fuer Verbraucher
  • Associazione Internazionale delle Organizzazioni degli Alimentari per il Consumatore