Head of the Commission's DG SANTE food legislation unit, Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, confirmed last week that a contractor had begun work on the evaluation of the need for nutrient profiles as part of its REFIT (Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme) mission to cut red tape where possible.
Speaking at an open Brussels meeting for the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), she said the findings would be published next year, which would then be followed by another Commission report on possible options for a way forward.
“We’ve been discussing these profiles for some time, without spectacular results. The time has come to do something,” said Nikolakopoulou, who took up her post last year.
The issue of nutrient profiles has been rumbling on for years since it was first written into the 2006 nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) but disagreement on what these profiles should be means the Commission has long-since missed its deadline of 2009 to set them.
The profiles have been plagued by so much disagreement that in April’s plenary MEPs voted overwhelmingly to consider deletion of the concept from the regulation under REFIT.
With EU member states and stakeholders already engaged in the REFIT exercise, one key question being asked for the report is: ‘Can the NHCR do its job without nutrient profiles?’
Nikolakopoulou said it was unusual to be looking at the impact of not enforcing a regulation, as opposed to the impact of enforcing one.
Despite April’s vote, she said the “majority” of member states were in favour of the nutrient profiles.
She noted that the debate was highly charged with MEPs.
Yet the current assessment was focused purely on legal and regulatory responses.
“This is the kind of feedback we need now, we don’t need position papers about future regulatory plans. But member states have asked the contractor to leave them space for their emotions [in the report].”
Indeed, earlier this month Environment and Public Health Committee (ENVI) Members of European Parliament (MEPs) adopted a motion that sought to block four caffeine health claims because of fears they would be used to create ‘health halos’ on sugary energy drinks - precisely the issue nutrient profiles were meant to prevent.
The motion – which will face a plenary of MEPs this week – originally contained a call for the Commission to set the long overdue profiles.
Yet this part of the text did not make it past the ENVI committee vote, in large because the same MEPs had already voted to re-evaluate the concept under REFIT.
The debate that preluded the vote was heated and saw one MEP clash with Nikolakopoulou over the Commission’s failure to meet its deadline.
Nikolakopoulou said at the time she "could not agree more that if we had nutrient profiles we would not be having this discussion now”, however "controversy" among stakeholders had derailed the project.
Yet German MEP Renate Sommer said she was "very annoyed" to hear Nikolakopoulou blame the failure on public discussions and said the real reason was the “complete lack of scientific basis for an arbitrary system”.
“The Commission quite simply made a mistake, but the Commission is of the view that it never makes mistakes," Sommer said in the animated exchange.
Asked at the NDA meeting last week if this caffeine fiasco was not evidence enough that the nutrient profiles were indeed needed, Nikolakopoulou said she could see this logic but said the decision could not come from the Commission itself.