(Dec. 30) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Food and Drug Administration appears to be making it easier for food companies to make qualified claims about their products’ nutritional value, although it’s not certain how much difference it will make to fruit and vegetable purveyors.

“One thing we see from so much research and analysis is that it often leads us to the conclusion that we knew intuitively before we began,” said Welcome Sauer, president of the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Washington Apple Commission. “In the case of fresh fruits and vegetables, Grandma was probably right. We should put more fruits and vegetables in our diets to look good, feel good and live well.”

As part of its new Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition initiative, the FDA announced Dec. 18 that it would lower the threshold food companies had to meet in order to make health claims about their products.

OLD WAYS

In the past, the FDA has imposed a stringent standard for health claims about food. The rules shot down, for example, claims that certain kinds of fish and fiber-rich oatmeal could cut the risk of heart disease because the claims have never been proven.

At the same time, the FDA is cracking down on fraudulent claims made by makers of some dietary supplements. The agency has allowed dietary supplements to carry “qualified health claims” — meaning there is no consensus on the nutritional merits of the products.

FDA’s action will allow foods to make similar claims.

The agency, however, said that any food products or dietary supplements carrying those claims must first obtain FDA approval.

The changes are a way of helping consumers “to get scientifically accurate information about the health consequences of the foods they consume and to (enhance) our enforcement efforts against those who would make false or misleading claims for their products,” FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said.

Produce marketing agents, who have the weight of the Food Guide Pyramid and nutritional programs like 5 a Day behind them, say that they welcome any chance to get their message out.

“Without question, the more opportunities we have to give consumers information about the different health benefits of produce items, the more informed decision they can make, and that’s precisely what we want them to be doing,” said Leslie Coleman, director of communications for the Orlando-based National Watermelon Promotion Board. “We need to provide them with that information to make that informed decision. The watermelon industry has always been conscientious about that. Because our claims are reviewed by USDA already, we want to be careful the information that we provide is accurate.”

Food processors have challenged the FDA in petitions and threats of lawsuits to ease the standard for foods. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, recently told the FDA that the “point at which scientific agreement becomes significant is inherently ambiguous.”

CONSUMER GROUP REACTIONS

Some consumer groups reacted warily to the FDA’s moves.

“(The FDA’s) action lowers the standard for health claims for foods to that which has been followed for dietary supplements,” the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement issued on its Web site. “The supplement claims standard has led to a marketplace free-for-all of misleading claims that we fear will now spread to the much larger food industry. While FDA has promised to step up enforcement actions, the agency, as a practical matter, has little resources to do so and no significant new funding appears to be forthcoming from Congress.”

Congress exempted dietary supplements from most federal regulation in 1994, allowing them to be sold without proof first that they are safe or benefit health. The FDA can try to force supplements off the market only after the agency has proof of people being injured.

“I’m sure any number of parties will interpret the FDA rules in whatever way that is most favorable to them, and we’ll have to study those rules to see what kind of claims the produce industry can make for our products,” Sauer said. “But I’m sure if there’s a good, strong and reasonable claim that should be made about our products as an industry, we need to be marketing those claims.”