European Union takes stand on "apple a day" health claims
One of the functions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to evaluate the various health claims made in connection with eating fresh produce. Despite the obvious fact that eating fresh fruit is good for us, there is extremely strict criteria spelling out exactly what can and can not be said publicly. At www.freshfruitportal.com, we explore the debate surrounding this issue and why EU bureaucracy is making life difficult for fruit growers to spread the message that eating fresh apples is good for consumer health.
A few weeks ago, we reported how a group of researchers from the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at England's Oxford University added weight to the old adage of "eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away".
A team, led by Doctor Adam Briggs, carried out an extensive study into the health benefits of eating one of the world's most favored fruits, concluding that eating an apple a day - like taking cholesterol-reducing medication such as statins - could significantly reduce the U.K.'s heart attack and stroke rates.
The study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, revealed that if the over 50s population ate an apple a day, as many as 8,500 deaths could be prevented every year in the Great Britain. It also said that generally increasing fresh produce uptake could have the same sort of cardiovascular health benefits as the use of statins.
A great message to be shouted about, says Adrian Barlow of English Apples and Pears Ltd. His compatriot growers could consider incorporating this particular study with the promotion of their fruit, perhaps using the message on labeling, but why aren't they?
In short, it's not allowed. Red-tape, bureaucracy and strict European Commission legislation gets in the way, according to Barlow.
"This is a very frustrating situation for me and for English apple growers at the moment because here we are with this fantastic research carried out by an eminent organization and we can do nothing with it," Barlow tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We have been waiting patiently for four years since the Commission introduced its strict criteria of what claims can be made and now is the time to speak up about it. In short, the system is not working."
Barlow stresses the importance of having a governing body that monitors what health claims can be made to prevent spurious declarations that undermine the serious efforts of doctors, medical professionals and industry experts. However, he feels the EFSA's current policy is effectively banning growers from marketing their produce from a health point of view because the surrounding legislation is far too strict.
"On the one hand it’s absolutely correct that we have an authority voice on what claims are made publicly that’s spot on because the public deserves good factual information regarding fresh produce," Barlow says.
"On the other hand, we certainly would like consumers to hear about responsible research carried out by prominent organizations because there is no doubt at all that consumers are influenced by this sort of thing. I’m not at all happy with the current situation on this.
"I can quite understand why the authority introduced these requirements before any claim is made but the reality is the criterion that is currently being used is quite clearly inappropriate for fresh produce because it’s completely different when compared against produce from the factory."
Defending its strict stance, an EFSA spokesman stuck to a statement which says: "EFSA carries out its work on health claims in line with the legislation set by European policy-makers, such as the European Commission. EFSA recognizes that the scientific criteria it applies to evaluate health claims are rigorous. This is to ensure that only those claims which can be substantiated by sound science receive positive assessments."
The European Fresh Produce Association, Freshfel, has been involved in this debate from the very beginning, working closely with English Apples and Pears.
Director of food law, nutrition and health, Raquel Izquierdo de Santiago, agrees wholeheartedly that Europe needs to find a "different way" than the current system that "prevents vital information getting to the consumer".
"We are aware of Andrew's point of view and have been coordinating with him on this issue for some time. We are looking at ways to get out of this situation where we can not pass on important messages to consumers, because the current way makes absolutely no sense," Izquierdo de Santiago told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We have enough knowledge to know fresh produce needs to be included in the diets of consumers, yet we find ourselves in a position where we can not say so.
"It would be a great help to consumers to have as much information as possible regarding the health benefits of fresh produce and we would like the relevant commissions and authorities in Europe to explore a way to do it differently because at the moment we are not allowed to make recommendations to the consumers which is very disappointing."
Record apple crop
The issue is even more poignant for English apple growers right now because they are enjoying their best crop in 25 years, following a difficult year in 2012 when yields were low because of bad weather.
Barlow says there is an abundance of fruit "that is the best in the world" and is, quite clearly, good for public health and he wants to spread the word officially.
"We are sitting on a bumper crop which is terrific news in many respects. We have the largest stocks for around 25 years and the apples will be available until around May time.
"But I would like to be able to tell the public that not only are the apples the finest tasting you’ll find anywhere, but also they will do you a hell of a lot of good from a health perspective.
"In particular the latest research which has been undertaken by a credible health institute by well-respected professionals that says eating apples can help with several health issues including coronary disease, type II diabetes and asthma."
He emphasizes that no one is saying there is any "miracle cure" to these diseases, but the evidence still points to benefits from apple consumption.
"There is also so much concern about obesity across the U.K and Europe. Eating apples as part of a balanced diet can help a person lose weight, so it seems crazy to me that we are not recognizing this right now.
Barlow says this year's record crop of around 43,000 metric tons (MT) includes the popular Gala - representing around 27 per cent of total sale - and Braeburn varieties, with the latter's yield at the highest level ever in England at 22,000MT.
"We’ve also seen new varieties like Jazz, Kanzi, Ruben and Cameo and there are other smaller varieties out there which are in the earlier stages of development.
"The older varieties such as cox are reducing in terms of their popularity and because of this we haven’t got the largest crop that we’ve ever had but it’s still the highest for around a quarter of a century.
"Overall though we have an absolute bumper crop of a variety of apples coming from orchards that are well managed and produce great tasting fruit."
He says he would like to see the EU take more responsibility in monitoring research with conclusions about the nutritional and health benefits of eating fresh produce.
"If we stay as we are it’s my view that we will not see an uptake in consumption. We need to spread the word so consumers have a better understanding of the associated health benefits of eating fresh produce and in this case apples."