New food labeling requires care

The Consumer Affairs Agency introduced in April a new labeling system for food products with enhanced health-boosting properties. Under the system, newly certified products called kinou-sei hyoji shokuhin — literally food with functions indicated — are expected to hit the market in June. Their explanatory notes will state health benefits in a clear manner, making it easier for consumers to choose the products they want. But consumers buying products carrying the designation should keep in mind that the health benefits have not been independently tested and certified by the government.

So far, food makers have been allowed to indicate the health effects of their products on labels for two types of products — items that can be used for boosting the intake of particular types of vitamins or minerals, with notes explaining which vitamins or minerals they contain and what effects the vitamins or minerals have, and items called tokuho, short for tokutei hoken-yo shokuhin (food with specified health uses). Under the tokuho system, the makers need to carry out research to prove that their products have certain effects. They can get the tokuho designation only after the government examines the research outcome and determines that the results are reliable.

The new labeling system was introduced as part of the Abe administration’s move to push deregulation in the market of food products. Because the designation under the tokuho system takes a lot of time and money, it is often difficult for small and medium-size producers to obtain the designation for their products. To help overcome this problem, the administration borrowed an idea from a system in use in the United States.

Under the new system, manufacturers first compile reports on the effects of their products either by carrying out clinical tests or by having experts review existing scientific papers on the benefits of their ingredients in accordance with the Consumer Affairs Agency’s guideline. They then submit the reports to the agency. If the agency accepts the reports, the companies can put the products with labels carrying the designation on the market after waiting 60 days. The agency will put the reports from the makers on its website. But elderly consumers who are not Net-savvy may have difficulty finding the relevant information.

The new labeling system covers not only processed foods but also perishable foods, although alcoholic beverages won’t be covered. The makers will be prohibited from claiming on the labels that the products can prevent certain diseases or have curative effects.

As early as June, consumers will encounter food products carrying such expressions as “holds down fat absorption,” “slows down sugar absorption” or “helps the liver to function better.” But designated products will also state that they have not been independently tested by the Consumer Affairs Agency. Shoppers should remember that the government doesn’t guarantee the products’ effects and safety. Consumers who want to verify such information will have to do their own research.

Consumer groups are critical of the new system because it leaves important matters, including product safety, to producers. Earlier this month, a problem cropped up concerning the new system. The food safety panel of the Cabinet Office determined that the safety of an ingredient in a beverage for which the producer applied for the tokuho designation could not be confirmed. However, the Consumer Affairs Agency had accepted a supplement using the same ingredient under the new system. This kind of discrepancy damages the trustworthiness of the government’s labeling systems.

The agency should take effective steps to prevent food products that could pose health hazards from receiving the new designation, and consumers should remain vigilant.