EU upholds food supplement ban - rejects appeal by health groups

The European Court of Justice has upheld a controversial law which could ban hundreds of vitamin and mineral supplements from being sold in Britain.

An appeal from health food industry groups was rejected this week and the new ruling, the Food Supplements Directive, comes into force on August 1.

As from then manufacturers will be obliged to submit all natural remedies, vitamin supplements and mineral plant extracts for approval and inclusion on a list of recognised food supplements.

Apparently a "positive list" of 112 substances passed fit for consumption, has already been drawn up, which includes vitamin C, calcium and iron, but many popular substances, such as selenium yeast, tin, manganese and vitamin K2, have been omitted from the list and are subject to 505 separate appeals.

If the European Food Safety Authority rejects the proposals, many popular supplements such as Viridian High-Five, Nature's Plus Source of Life, and Holland & Barrett Vitamin C-1 could soon be outlawed.

The rejection by the European Court, of British claims that the law is a breach of EU rules, came as a surprise to politicians and campaigners, who say that it could put scores of manufacturers out of business.

The ruling also went directly against the opinion of the court's top legal adviser, who said in April that the directive should be scrapped for contravening basic EU principles of "legal protection, legal certainty and sound administration".

The health supplement market in the UK is reputed to be worth £335 million a year, and includes many products in long-established regular use for everything, from blood pressure and diabetes to osteoporosis.

It is estimated that about 21 million Brits, a third of all women and a quarter of men, take supplements in the belief that they will improve their health.

There are two stages to the directive, the enforcement of types of ingredients in supplements next month, and a second ruling in a year's time on quantities of different nutrients allowed.

The judges ruled that a "positive list" system is appropriate for securing the free movement of food supplements and ensuring the protection of human health, and also add that an application to have a substance included would be refused only after a full risk assessment.

The three groups who challenged the directive, the Alliance for Natural Health, the British Health Food Manufacturers' Association and the National Association of Health Stores, may be to some extent be mollified by the conditions set out this week. They had formerly said the rules were unnecessary and that the costs of complying would be prohibitive for many small firms.

The directive which was approved by EU governments in 2002, gave health food manufacturers until this week to submit scientific dossiers proving that their ingredients were safe, and supplements failing to qualify by August 1 would be banned.

The ruling caused controversy from the outset, and prompted a petition of more than a million signatures, a letter of protest to Tony Blair from more than 300 doctors and scientists, and motions opposing the law in both Houses of Parliament.

In an attempt to re-assure the groups Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, said that Britain would use its EU presidency to ensure that the laws do not deny products to people, and says that she will fight for a sensible implementation of the directive.

Apparently Hewitt, a user of vitamins and supplements herself, means to press for the lightest touch possible in carrying out the directive, in order to ensure that the providers can continue to make available, a wide and growing, choice of vitamin and food supplements, to the public in Britain and elsewhere.

Tory Health spokesman in the European Parliament, John Bowis, estimates that 300 nutrients and nutrient sources in Britain would now be banned unless they obtained inclusion on a positive list, a move which he says will require "excessive levels of testing and red tape".

Jim Murray, director of the European consumers' group BEUC, however has declared the ruling to be a clear victory for consumers and for the EU's right to regulate on the safety of food products.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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