On July 18, the Japanese government approved a new health food labeling system that lifts the current ban on functional claims that explicitly express how health foods are good for the body. Until now, claims of functional enhancements by health foods to specific parts of the body were not allowed.
The plan allows food manufacturers to make their own claims about a food’s healthiness as long as they can clearly demonstrate a scientific basis for the claim. Before marketing a food product, companies must notify the national government, but they will carry out safety assessments and quality control themselves. No government inspection will be required.
The Abe administration claims that the current food labeling systems are confusing to consumers, and that the new plan, which is set to be implemented next spring, will make labels easier for the consumer to understand. Currently, two other labeling systems are in place. Companies will also benefit from less government involvement and a reduction in the burden placed on them by the stricter labeling system.
The “Tokuho” (Japanese acronym for ‘Food for Specialized Health Uses,’ or ‘FOSHU’ in English)’ label requires government inspection of products. Approval of the effectiveness and safety claims submitted by companies takes approximately four years. Under the Tokuho system, labels can specify only certain body parts, such as teeth and bones. Direct statements that a food ‘maintains’ or ‘enhances’ health are prohibited, so roundabout labels stating that a product “helps improve the diet of people concerned about the health of their stomachs” is typical.
The other system, known in English as Food with Nutrient Function Claims (FNFC), requires no government inspection. Approved FNFC food labels include the statement that “calcium is a nutrient required for the formation of bones and teeth.” Only approved statements regarding twelve types of vitamins and five types of minerals are permitted on foods like supplements and health drinks.
The new ‘functional claim’ labeling system, which will be implemented alongside the other two, lifts the ban on concrete functional claims. This system allows labels stating, for example, that a product “relieves eye and nose problems.” However, labels must include a disclaimer that the functional claims have not received government approval. And suggestions that a product will treat or prevent a disease, or cause physical changes, will continue to be prohibited by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act.
Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency announced that it will set strict standards for the scientific basis requirement, and that it will conduct thorough after-sales monitoring of products. Information regarding the scientific grounds for safety and effectiveness claims as well as quality control methods and reports of damage to health will be made public.
Regardless of regulation, exaggerated or misleading labels with little or no scientific evidence abound, as do false claims. The lack of prior inspection by the government may compound the problem, as there is a possibility of products with insufficient safety controls going to market. Although there has been debate within the Consumer Affairs Agency regarding how to regulate ‘health foods’ with suggestive claims, the agency states that it will improve its data collection and market monitoring effectiveness.
The move to lift the ban on functional claims was initiated unexpectedly by the Abe administration, rather than the public. The current administration proposed the new policy as part of its strategy prioritizing economic growth, modeling the plan after the system implemented in the U.S., where the health food market grew quickly once the labeling ban was lifted.
Source: Asahi Shimbun Digital, 19 July 2014, (Summary translation from Japanese)