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Danone drops yoghurt health claims

(PARIS) - French food giant Danone said Thursday it had stopped making health claims for its Activia and Actimel yoghurts and dropped an attempt to get their alleged benefits recognised by EU scientists.

In its quarterly earnings report, the group announced that it had withdrawn an application to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) seeking official validation of its claims about the popular premium brands.

Danone shares plunged by more than 2.84 percent on the Paris stock exchange following the announcement, despite the company reporting its first quarter turnover was up 8.3 percent to 3.9 billion euros (5.3 billion dollars).

"The fresh dairy division has decided to withdraw two applications that were expected to receive an opinion from the EFSA in the coming weeks," said Danone finance director Pierre-Andre Terisse Danone, presenting the results.

"Simultaneously, marketing communication continues to be adapted in the European countries," he added.

An industry analyst, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the firm's star brands account for up to a fifth of Danone's total sales and that the decision would have a "clearly negative effect" on its strategy.

Previously, Activia, a fermented dairy product containing bifidus, had been marketed as easing the digestive system. Actimel, a fermented milk drink, was said to reinforce the body's protection against disease.

EFSA has yet to confirm either claim and the group's advertising has already been modified in France, Britain and the United States.

Already, in February, EFSA raised doubts about Danone's claim that an ingredient known as "immunofortis" in its baby products can reinforce an infant's immune system, arguing that this is scientifically unproven.

"The evidence provided is insufficient to establish a cause and effect relationship between the consumption of Immunofortis and the initiation of appropriate immune responses," the agency's scientists concluded.

Immunofortis is used in Danone's baby milk in several European markets but not in France.

Danone's health claims have also run into trouble in Britain where the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld four complaints about their accuracy, most recently in October last year against Actimel.

"The evidence provided by Danone did not support the claim made in the ad that a serving of Actimel was scientifically proven to support the defences of normal, healthy school-aged children against common, every-day childhood infections. We therefore concluded that the ad was misleading," it ruled.

Last year, Danone's US subsidiary was forced to pay 35 million dollars in compensation to settle a lawsuit by consumers who complained it had exaggerated the health benefits of Activia.

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