The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has evaluated nearly 3,000 ‘general function’ claims and more than 250 other applications over the past few years. In the list of health claims which has been made on foods, as referred to in Article 13 (3) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006, a health claim has been established for olive oil polyphenols. The claim, as registered, is that “olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress”.
What constitutes a health claim according to Regulation (EC) 1924/2006
Out of thousands of submitted applications, only a few claims have been authorised so far. In the context of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006, a health claim is any statement about a relationship between food and health based on an opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is responsible for evaluating scientific evidence provided by the interested parties. Health claims are defined as “any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health” in order to “enhance the consumers’ ability to make informed and meaningful choices”.
The health claim for polyphenols in olive oil
Regarding olive oil, 16 petitions belonging to the category Article 13.1 (a) ‘general function’ claims of the regulation were submitted. The only authorised health claim, listed in the Regulation 432/2012, relates to the level of olive phenolic compounds and the impact on the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress. The conditions of use of the claim is that it “may be used only for olive oil which contains at least 5mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (e.g. oleuropein complex and tyrosol) per 20mg of olive oil. In order to bear the claim, information shall be given to the consumer that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 20mg of olive oil”.
Would the EU be creating a market within a market?
It seems that the increasing popularity of the healthy Mediterranean diet, and especially olive oil, has more than doubled demand for olive oil during the past 20 years.
Authorisation of the above health claim aroused enthusiasm and was considered by the SMEs in the producing countries as a means to convey more benefits from virgin olive oil consumption to consumers and also to gain better prices for their products since more than 11 million hectares of olives are grown in the world, spread across the five continents, two hemispheres and 47 countries where olive oil is currently produced. Olives grown for olive oil production are harvested from
October to April in the northern hemisphere and from April to June in the southern hemisphere, although 98% of the world’s olives are harvested in the Mediterranean region. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world (40%), followed by Italy (14%) and Greece (11% of total volume production). At present, olive oil is consumed in over 160 countries.
According to IOC predictions for 2015-2016, EU countries are expected to consume about 79% of EU consumption and 66% of international production. In Italy, 80% of olive oil production reaches the stage of labelling/branding, whereas in Spain and Greece only 50% and 27% respectively is sold branded, with the remainder sold in bulk form, mainly to Italy for re-export.
The specification of the olive oil that produces the health claim proved to be virgin olive oil with the highest phenolic concentration. Production of extra virgin olive oil in the major producers varies since 80% of the production of Greek olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, compared with 65% in Italy and 30% in Spain5. Would the SMEs that produce and market virgin olive oil benefit from the claim?
The olive oil market: the Mediterranean region and the world
The Mediterranean region is the major olive growing area and accounts for 98% of the olive tree plantations in the world. The olive fruits are consumed as olive oil or table olives. Olive oil, a traditional food product, primarily in the Mediterranean region, has been an essential part of the nutrition for civilisations, using it for thousands of years. Its production and usage has continued to evolve and is finding its way to a more competitive global market.
Olive oil production amounts to 3.1 million tonnes; this represents a 1.7% share of total output of edible vegetable and animal fats (184 million tonnes according to data for 2012).
The practice of CAP and EU policies on food and agricultural production, in the recent history of EU, has resulted according to the authorities of member EU states to numerous cases of non-compliance to EC legislation against manufacturing companies. Since noncompliance to EU standards may bear significant financial repercussions to companies, it is imperative that olive oil producers and manufacturing companies alike create a strategic plan about both the appropriate method of evaluation of the olive oil phenolic compounds and the laboratory carrying out the evaluation tests. A thorough procedure and system of proof of evidence for the concentration of the phenolic compounds would be essential and vital to prove compliance at all times.