MEPs vote to veto 4 caffeine health claims

By Annie Harrison-Dunn contact

- Last updated on GMT

Parliament concerns over energy drinks come to a head as MEPs vote to veto caffeine health claims. © iStock.com / KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Parliament concerns over energy drinks come to a head as MEPs vote to veto caffeine health claims. © iStock.com / KatarzynaBialasiewicz
The European Parliament’s Environment and Public Health Committee (ENVI) has adopted a last-minute motion that could see four controversial caffeine claims vetoed in a move the energy drink sector warns could result in yet more years of "legal uncertainty”.

Danish Socialist Member of European Parliament (MEP) Christel Schaldemose tabled the motion​, which called on the European Commission to withdraw its draft regulation​ approving the four claims; consider restrictions on the marketing of energy drinks to children and adolescents; and immediately begin work on establishing nutrient profiles.

Today’s vote means the concerns – which focus mainly on the claims being used to create health halos on sugary energy drinks and high energy drink consumption among children and teenagers – will face a plenary of MEPs in July.

The decision comes just as political momentum was gathering for the claims, which have been stuck in EU law book backwaters for five years due to EU member state public health concerns.

Adoption of a much-anticipated European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment last April​, spurred movement and a Commission proposal to finally make the claims law has been making its way through EU​.

Today's vote will come as a serious blow to industry hopes.

The vote this afternoon (15 June) followed a lively debate in the Committee meeting earlier today.

The four claims set to be authorised are: 

  • “Caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance performance.”
  • “Caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance capacity.”
  • “Caffeine helps to increase alertness.”
  • “Caffeine helps to improve concentration.” 

Nutrient profiles proved to be something of a sticking point and although the motion as a whole was adopted by the Committee, the MEPs voted to scrap the references to nutrient profiles.

Refitting nutrient profiles?

Some of the Committee members in this morning’s debate questioned the inclusion of nutrient profiles, which in an April plenary MEPs voted overwhelmingly to scrap​ under the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT).

German MEP Renate Sommer butted heads with the head of the Commission's DG SANTE food legislation unit, Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, on this point.

Nikolakopoulou suggested the failure to set nutrient profiles was due to "controversy"​ among stakeholders. 

She said she "could not agree more that if we had nutrient profiles we would not be having this discussion now,"​ however she reminded MEPs of April's vote to scrap them.  

Renate Sommer German MEP ENVI member
Renate Sommer: '...the EC is of the view that it never makes mistakes.'

Sommer said she was "very annoyed" ​to hear that the failure to set the profiles was due to public discussions. 

Alexandra Nikolakopoulou DG SANTE Commission
Alexandra Nikolakopoulou: Wants to see nutrient profiles back on the agenda.

"That may be a contribution. But I think the real reason, and I think the Commission finally needs to admit this, is not the public discussion but 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." 

As part of the EU's 2006 nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR), nutrient profiles were originally intended to ensure health claims could not be used to create ‘health halos’ over unhealthy products.

But all attempts to create the profiles have been marred by delays, with the Commission's 2009 deadline to set them long gone.

The full debate can be seen HERE​.

EFSA’s report concluded up to 400 mg of caffeine a day and 200 mg in a single session of two hours does not pose a health risk for general population adults, which formed the basis for the Commission’s decision on the five on-hold claims.

A typical can of Red Bull contains 80 mg of caffeine in a 250 ml can, or the equivalent of a regular cup of coffee.

Energy drink sector reacts

Trade group Energy Drinks Europe (EDE), which represents members including Red Bull, said it was surprised by today’s vote but hoped July's plenary vote would support the authorisation of the claims.

It says the adoption of the Commission’s proposals for their authorisation would end “years of uncertainty" ​providing a regulatory framework for industry and clarity for consumers.

“The Commission proposal aims to establish a legal framework across Europe for caffeine claims, providing protection for consumers - with a particular focus on children and adolescents, as well as legal certainty for businesses,” ​EDE secretary general Andreas Kadi told us.

“This vote, however, could result in the use of caffeine claims being left unlegislated at European level.”

Kadi said this was “particularly regrettable”​ given the Commission’s proposal were based on EFSA advice.

Dr Mark Tallon, managing director of the consultancy firm Legal Foods, echoed this saying EFSA’s opinion was a clear confirmation of caffeine’s safety in combination with exercise.

He said the EU’s mainstay ‘precautionary principle’ should only be invoked when there is an absence of scientific consensus on safety and efficacy.

Simply political?

“Any so-called veto of the caffeine claims already considered as safe would go against the evidence and would be simply a political decision,”​ Dr Tallon told us yesterday ahead of the vote.

coffee caffeine iStock.com a_crotty
Caffeine-rich coffee has not been targeted as energy drinks have.

“Again we do not see any calls for a ban on coffee where the intakes could easily exceed the COU [conditions of use] for the current on-hold caffeine claims.” 

Much of the debate around the caffeine claims centred on their use on energy drinks.

“A proportionate response as already taken includes the use of specific warnings over caffeine consumption and as such unless all sources of caffeine are to be banned and treated equally then this action could be considered as discriminatory and a breach of the underlying principles of EU law.”

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