ABU DHABI // New food labels should soon give consumers a better idea of what they are eating - and more confidence that any health claims made on the packaging are legitimate.
Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to list ingredients on prepackaged food sold in Abu Dhabi. They have also been required to prove any claimed benefits or disease-preventing properties.
But companies continue to export products that lack the necessary information, or make unacceptable claims. These are usually rejected at the border - but manufacturers have complained that the rules are difficult to follow.
The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) is now drawing up clearer guidelines based on European and US systems.
"A big challenge for us is a lack of adequate regulation for the approval process," said Mustafa Salama, a policy adviser for ADFCA, at the International Food Safety Conference in Dubai this week.
At present, manufacturers must provide scientific documentation proving any health claims.
Under the new system, ADCFA will assemble a database of approved products and accepted claims. It will be based on international findings, and updated regularly.
ADFCA's scientific committee will check new claims are "not misleading and will not have side effects for consumers".
Verifying claims is only part of the problem, according to Fred Degnan, a lawyer at King & Spalding in the US. They then need to be presented in a way that makes their status clear.
He cited a US study that found people put more faith in less-proven health claims with multiple qualifiers, because they provided more information.
Perversely, they were less likely to trust officially verified health claims that were stated as fact.
Communicating such claims is even harder in the UAE, with its diverse population.
According to Mr Salama, there is a lack of data on consumption behaviour among different nationalities. The number of products claiming benefits is increasing, while other items, such as food supplements, remain in a "grey area" and are not classified at all.
"The line between food dietary and food supplement is not finalised," he said.
There is also a question over what counts as a label. In the US, labelling covers any written, printed or graphic material accompanying a product, from brochures to power point presentations to websites. The result, says Mr Degnan, is that any promotional claim, in any medium, is regulated.
In the UAE, "label" is more tightly defined. "On the internet you can find anything," said Mr Salama, adding that ADFCA is unlikely to monitor company websites any time soon.