News analysis: Back into battle on food pack logos

Lucrative on-pack charity logo deals are once more under threat from EU legislation, writes Stephen Cook.

Anyone who needs convincing that charities should keep a wary eye on Brussels should have a look at article 11, paragraph one, sub-paragraph (d) of the European Commission paper 0165(COD) of 2003.

This dense, 34-page document is a proposal for the regulation of nutrition and health claims made about food, and the relevant section says that "implied health claims" should be disallowed, including "claims that make reference to ... charities".

The British Heart Foundation was quick to realise this could affect deals such as the one in which Shredded Wheat carries its logo in return for a donation from Nestle for every packet sold. Deals such as this are worth £1m a year to the charity - a small but significant part of its £59m non-legacy income last year. Although the BHF calls these partnerships "on-pack fundraising" and denies they are health claims or endorsements, it was clear that they were likely to be outlawed - so battle was joined.

Three-pronged lobby

The BHF lobbied alongside three sister heart foundations from other European countries, while the food industry and the UK Government worked separately to the same end: between them, they got a result.

By November last year, the text had been amended to say that recommendations of or endorsements by medical associations or health-related charities are to be allowed, subject to rules drawn up by individual EU member states.

The task of drawing up those rules has been allocated in the UK to the Food Standards Agency, which is planning to launch a consultation about it once the EU's legislative process is complete.

But the fact that it's not yet complete was underlined when Renate Sommer, a Christian Democrat MEP from Germany, recently put down an amendment to the regulation that will be discussed in the environment committee of the European Parliament next week.

The amendment would have the effect of changing the regulation back to its original wording, putting charity on-pack fundraising under threat again. Once more, the BHF is sailing into a battle that forms part of the wider food-labelling war.

"Like many things in Europe, it's tidal - it seems to go away and then come back again," says Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation. "It shows how charities need to skill themselves up to work in Europe."

Her team, helped by a PR company, is talking to MEPs on the environment committee, whose decision will go to the full Parliament before then going back to the European Commission and eventually the Council of Ministers, which will grant the equivalent of royal assent.

Although Sommer is a Christian Democrat and part of the Parliament's conservative group - the largest among the 732 MEPs - not all conservative members are lined up behind her amendment. The British Conservative MEP John Bowis, for example, has put up a rival amendment to hers.

With the power and money of the food industry also being deployed in the lobbies, it seems likely that the tide will eventually go out again and the BHF will breathe easy once more.

"We'd be very surprised if it carried," says McBride. "But Europe is always a complicated place to fish for the voluntary sector, which is why it's good to be part of a co-ordinated European lobby of national heart organisations."

The BHF has not been working with other UK charities on this case, partly because not many other organisations are so heavily involved in fundraising on food packaging.

Cancer Research UK has had such partnerships in the past, including one with a prune juice producer. "But we don't have any now and we're not pursuing any," says Jackie Tanner, head of corporate partnerships.

Health message

"It's a niche area of business and can be very resource-intensive - we tend to have a very broad focus. We're in favour of positive health messages, and each case has to be dealt with in its own context."

But can on-pack fundraising be called a positive health message, given the specific denial that an endorsement is being given? Rosamund McCarthy, a consultant and specialist in cause-related marketing at solicitors Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, thinks the public sees on-pack fundraising as an endorsement and that is why food companies like them.

"The endorsement point is splitting hairs," she says. "Cause-related marketing is purely advertising. There is no philanthropic motive at all - it's to shift the products off the shelves."

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