The press chamber of the hamburg regional court dismissed a complaint by foodwatch on friday. The consumer organization had accused unilever of concealing the side effects of margarine enriched with plant sterols.
"However, the court did not decide whether the margarine in question had harmful side effects or not," emphasized district court spokesman conrad muller-horn. The proceedings, which had been ongoing for months, were only about whether a statement by the giebener mediziner prof. Hans-ulrich klor in a communication from unilever is admissible. Klor is quoted as saying that from a scientific point of view there is no evidence that the consumption of plant sterol-enriched products is associated with side effects.
The court now considered this statement to be an opinion – and not a statement of fact. "Unilever can thus in effect invoke freedom of opinion," muller-horn explained.
Foodwatch complained that the court had "not even subjected unilever’s claims to a fact check". "Denying scientific evidence of side effects is humbug, but unilever is allowed to continue spreading this humbug," said spokesman martin rucker. He called for a halt to the sale of "becel pro.Activ" until the safety of the product is proven in long-term studies. The organization will now consider whether to appeal the decision.
The manufacturer should apply for approval of the margarine as a medicinal product, said oliver huizinga of foodwatch. "From our point of view it is like this: if you are sick, you should go to the doctor, and if you are hungry, you should go to the supermarket – and not the other way round."
In its criticism, foodwatch refers to studies that have provided evidence of side effects of plant sterols. "According to this, plant sterols can cause what they are supposed to prevent: deposits in the vessels, associated with an increased risk of heart disease." That "becel pro.Activ" lowers cholesterol levels is not controversial, he said. However, unilever cannot prove that this actually means less heart disease, said huizinga: "on the contrary, there is evidence that plant sterols themselves may cause heart disease."
The federal institute for risk assessment had stressed in 2008 that "people with normal cholesterol levels should avoid eating foods with added plant sterols." Also in a statement from the end of 2011, the institute adheres to this assessment, a spokeswoman told the news agency dpa on friday.
Unilever, on the other hand, spoke of a "good day for consumers" and accused foodwatch of a "smear campaign". The organization had ignored elevated cholesterol as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease in its campaign, which was aimed "as usual at scandalizing the food industry. The european food safety authority and other authorities worldwide had assessed the safety of plant sterols based on studies and judged them safe to eat. "Becel pro.Activ" has been on the market since 2000, according to unilever.
Scientist klor also criticized foodwatch’s action: "i think this is an abuse of justice." He reaffirmed his statements about margarine. Something must be done about the "mass problem" of high cholesterol "without necessarily having to resort to drugs". The scientist emphasized that he had "never received a cent" from unilever for his statements.