Asda bids for time to prepare ‘nasty’ defence

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Asda

Asda has asked for more time to defend itself in a defamation case brought against it by one of the world’s leading suppliers of the sweetener...

Asda has asked for more time to defend itself in a defamation case brought against it by one of the world’s leading suppliers of the sweetener aspartame.

Japanese ingredients giant Ajinomoto last week launched legal action against Asda, accusing it of malicious falsehood for repeatedly referring to aspartame as ‘nasty’ in its marketing materials.

Asda will not say whether it will defend its use of the term ‘nasty’ on scientific grounds. However, industry sources said it could struggle to build a credible case given that the European Food Safety Authority had recently conducted a detailed review of all the available scientific evidence and concluded that aspartame was safe for human consumption.

The case will be watched closely by several firms that have employed similarly emotive rhetoric about additives on their packaging and marketing materials, notably Pret A Manger, which tells consumers to “avoid hairy chemicals”. These are defined as “obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives ... the nasties we avoid at all costs”

Asda declined to comment on the evidence supporting its derogatory comments about aspartame, but said it was proud to have an own-label range that only used “natural ingredients”

Despite the fact that aspartame has been approved for use in the EU for 20 years and exhaustively tested, Asda has banned its use in its own-label ranges on the grounds that consumers don’t want it in their products.

Ajinomoto had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Asda to tone down its rhetoric, and said it had been forced to defend itself. A spokesman said: “At a time when the health profession and the government are seeking ways to combat overweight and obesity, it is unconscionable that Asda should try and vilify a safe and beneficial food ingredient.”

One consultant working in the sweeteners sector said taking legal action was brave, but could open up a can of worms for Ajinomoto if Asda decided to launch a PR offensive on the back of the case and drew media attention to some recent negative studies about aspartame as a potential carcinogen based on some rat studies, even if they had been discredited.

However, were Ajinomoto to succeed, it could also force companies to stop using such emotive language and take a more science-based approach to food marketing, he said.

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