Food-health claims warrant scrutiny

The flood of new 'health'-related claims for new sorts of teas, waters and other food products requires new sorts of FDA oversight, according to consumer advocacy groups.

With health-related claims for water, teas and food products on the rise as marketers rush into a growing health segment, the groups told the FDA this week that its system to examine some claims is outdated, broken and illogical and that the process is preventing consumers from getting needed information.

The FDA is "creating increasing legal uncertainty," said Michael Ruggio, an attorney for the American Association for Health Freedom/Alliance for Natural Health. "A new regulatory framework is urgently needed."

Food-policy groups, lawyers and consumer groups told the FDA at an all-day hearing yesterday that the problems surface when newer supplements are added to foods.

Both the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Institute of Food Technologists want the FDA to rewrite regulations to more clearly describe "novel" combinations of food and supplements, but the two groups disagree on what the agency should do or what foods should be impacted.

Barbara Peterson of the Institute for Food Technologists told the FDA that the agency's current regulatory scheme does a disservice to consumers by leaving them with less, not more, information.

The institute wants the FDA to ease the way marketers make claims about products' functions. The institute's plan calls on companies to form independent scientific panels to verify accuracy, and after approval from those panels, marketers could then use their claims in advertising.

Peterson said such a move would "encourage public confidence and be the best use of government resources."

Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for CSPI, warned that approach would "eviscerate" differences between the way FDA regulates food and drugs and urged a far more tailored approach, with the FDA preapproving claims for novel new combinations. He suggested the FDA should make its existing regulations clearer and enforce them more strongly, rather than make major changes.

An official of the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association told the FDA that there is no need to rewrite rules, and suggested more aggressive enforcement of existing rules would clear up any confusion.

Dr. Barbara Schneeman, director of the FDA's Nutritional Products office, said the agency is looking at its regulation of foods because of a series of reports and a petition from CSPI. "We are seeing a variety of things where people are raising questions and it's important to have a scientific discussion," she said.

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