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WASHINGTON -- Food makers may advertise "qualified" descriptions of the health benefits of their products now that the Food and Drug Administration has loosened a requirement requiring scientific consensus on such claims.
The first pitch expected after Wednesday's FDA announcement: salmon and other fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids that are thought to -- but not proved to -- reduce the risk of heart disease.
Until now, the FDA standard for health claims about food has been rigid. Before oatmeal could claim to be good for the heart, for instance, there had to be scientific consensus that oatmeal's fiber helps maintain low cholesterol levels.
The new hurdle is similar to the one the courts have established for dietary supplements. They are allowed to carry "qualified health claims" -- meaning there is no consensus, but a lot of scientific research supporting a particular nutrient's effect.
Food makers, irked by the disparity between the previously rigid standards governing them and what the $17 billion dietary supplement industry could claim, welcomed the plans.
The steps are "leveling the playing field for conventional foods," said Rhona Applebaum of the National Food Processors Association.
"This breaks a logjam," added Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
But consumer advocates decried the move. A qualified food claim is comparable to the airline industry saying, "this airplane may be safe," says Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Most consumers don't like wishy-washy advice from health agencies."
The FDA also promised more crackdowns on dietary supplement makers who make fraudulent claims.