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Food Commission slams dodgy press releases

23rd October 2000

Press releases can tell fibs about food - and nobody can stop them.

Magazine ads, TV ads and labels all have to comply with strict codes of practice. Make a false claim in an advert and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) or the Independent Television Commission (ITC) will have something to say about it. Make a false claim on a label and you'll soon have a Trading Standards Officer breathing down your neck.

But there's a whole category of marketing that slips through the regulatory net. This is particularly interesting when it comes to health claims for food and food supplements. When launching a product onto the market, a manufacturer will usually issue a press release giving journalists key details about the product, along with statements by scientists, doctors or other health professionals. The idea is that the journalists will use the press release as the basis of a news story to announce the arrival of the new product.

But press releases are not regulated by the ASA or the ITC, nor by Trading Standards. Manufacturers can make just about any claim they like without any danger of being reprimanded if the claims turn out to be inaccurate or misleading. The Professional Charter of the Public Relations Consultants Association instructs its members that they shall 'have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and shall not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and to use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently'. A useful guideline, but it is not legally binding.

Perhaps manufacturers and PR companies ought to take a leaf out of America's book. On a US press statement concerning financial forecasts we found the following: 'Information in this release may involve expectations, beliefs, plans, intentions or strategies regarding the future. These forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties. All forward-looking statements included in this release are based upon information available to [the writer] as of the date of the release, and we assume no obligation to update any such forward-looking statement. The statements in this release are not guarantees of future performance and actual results could differ materially from our current expectations. Numerous factors could cause or contribute to such differences.'

Essentially, this disclaimer is protecting the writer from being sued. But on food-related press releases, why shouldn't there be a disclaimer reminding journalists that facts and figures need to be checked; that health claims have to be substantiated and that claims made in the press release are for financial gain, and should therefore be treated with care?

For now, the moral of this story remains: don't believe everything you read in the papers.

The Food Commission is calling for the newly formed Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) to take a hard look at the claims being made in press releases. The JHCI is a voluntary body bringing together industry, consumer and trading standards representatives. Their judgements will not have the strength of a legal decision but may be used by food inspectors when prosecuting companies.

However, as press releases are not covered by any laws, no prosecutions can take place. The only contribution the JHCI can make is to publicly name and shame the miscreants. We hope the JHCI will make this an early priority.

These are examples of press releases we've received over the past few months. How should a journalist judge what to believe when there are no regulations that govern the truth of what they say?

  • Nutribread The press release claims that the bread contains Omega-3 fatty acids, 'the only fats that the body cannot produce itself and must therefore be obtained from food'. The press release cannot be legally challenged, even though other essential fats, as well as Omega-3, must also be obtained from food.
  • Skane probiotics The press release says that drinking this probiotic fruit drink will keep your digestive system 'in perfect balance' and could help immunise against unknown, future infections in healthy people. These claims might hit the headlines, but are they true?
  • BioZate The press release claims that this 'pre-digested' protein drink has 'a positive impact on hypertension', and that laboratory tests on rats showed that the product can reduce blood pressure. Does this evidence warrant the same health claims for people?
  • Rhodiola The press release claims that a herb available as a new dietary supplement can alleviate depression, promote mental alertness, improve tolerance to stress, boost physical energy, improve sleep patterns and hearing, prevent abnormal heart rhythm and prevent free-radical damage. But where's the proof? These are medicinal claims and cannot be made unless the product has a medicines licence. Does it? The press release doesn't say.