More flexibility on health claims

The Food and Drug Administration has eased its benchmark standard for health claims on food labels, allowing qualified health claims with varying degrees of substantiation submitted by food companies prior to marketing.

After submission, the qualified health claims are subjected to a public comment period to solicit and assess science and research that might support or refute the claim.

Claims are graded according to their level of scientific evidence with (A) meaning significant scientific agreement, (B) meaning evidence is not conclusive, (C) meaning evidence is limited and not conclusive, and (D) meaning there is little scientific evidence supporting the claim. Labels must bear FDA’s exact wording for each level of claim. The new standard replaces one that required “significant scientific consensus” for any health claim.

FDA said this will provide consumers with more and better information about diet that will help them reduce their risk of chronic diseases. Food industry organizations had pushed for the less restrictive standard. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. applauded FDA’s action but said it preferred to let companies develop their own language for each qualified health claim.

Critics charge the relaxed standard will confuse the public and warn that it may violate the 1990 Nutrition Labeling Education Act. The Center for Science in the Public Interest called it “the biggest rollback in food-labeling standards in 20 years.”

FDA will begin accepting petitions for health claims in September.

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