From 7 – 9 May 2019, the Vitafoods conference took place again in Geneva. For a few years in a row, I presented at the Education Program. This year I was asked to discuss the application of CBD in food products, which is currently a hot topic. Below, I will share the insight from my presenation, as well as two other trends I came across at the trade show.
(1) Cannabis, cannabis, cannabis
Cannabis was omnipresent at Vitafoods 2019. I do not mean the smell of it, but its application in food, pharma and in cosmetics. FoodHealthLegal being dedicated to food products, this post will uniquely focus on food application of (parts of) Cannabis. In our practice, we also deal with the other applications thereof. As pointed out in an earlier blogpost, FBO’s in the field of Cannabis were recently confronted with a change in the Novel Food catalogue. Since 20 January this year, CBD was declared a Novel Food. In my presentation during Vitafoods, I explained that this does not necessarily mean that each FBO needs to obtain an (individual) NF authorization. In fact, I identified 5 ways to market CBD food products, as further detailed in my slides:
- no Novel Food;
- individual / joint Novel Food application;
- rely on third party authorization;
- take advantage from the transition regime;
- use national consultation procedure.
Food supplements targeting a cosmetic effect, so-called nutricosmetics, were present in great numbers too. The rationale behind these products is that cosmetic effects do not only derive from topical applications but can just as well be achieved via food (“beauty from within”). Communicating the benefits of these products is to some extent easier than communication around “regular” food supplements, as one can rely on so-called beauty claims. These are claims that uniquely target appearance of skin, hair and nails and not any beneficial nutritional or physiological effect on the body. These types of claims are not covered by the Claims Regulation, so one has flexibility in the wording thereof. In practise, these claims are usually supported by efficacy studies, as the burden of proof obviously is on the FBO marketing the nutricosmetic at stake. In addition to beauty claims, a number of health claims relate to beauty as well. The compounds covered include biotin, iodine and Vitamins A, B2 and C amongst others. As a result, attractive general health claims can be used for nutricosmetics, when specific ingredients thereof meet the parameters for these specific claims.
As an example, the product Lycoderm can be mentioned. This is a carotenoids and rosemary blend aimed at enhancing the benefits of topical skin treatment. The product is marketed stating that “antioxidants like carotenoids help balance our skin from environmental stressors such as UV rays”. The shorter version thereof could be “carotenoids help maintain healthy, smooth skin.” So far, no authorised health claim for carotenoids is in place, but it is possible to make a beauty claim regarding the effects thereof in a nutricosmetic (if powered by science). When using the authorised health claim for Vitamin E (“contributes to the protection of cells from oxidative stress”), a short attractive claim could read “beauty comes from within.”
(3) Digital nutraceuticals
This is a new phenomenon according to which nutraceuticals are powered by digital support. Various examples of apps developed by manufacturers of nutraceuticals operating in a B2B context were shown, aiming to enhance the appreciation of the consumer in a B2C context. More than once, such digital support could be customized for each individual client, so that a whole new digital business is developing around food supplements.
As an example, the product Metabolaid can be mentioned. This is a food supplement manufactured by Monteloeder aiming at weight control by controlling the appetite of consumers. Clinical studies are reported to have shown that the intake of this product, together with a healthy diet and regular exercise, helps consumers to manage their body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. Monteloeder has also designed an app, enabling the consumer to monitor his/her daily habits, including eating hours, frequency and sleep. Furthermore, this app allows the connection with other wearables to detect health related parameters like heart rate, steps taken and body weight. This should enable the consumer to achieve positive changes in lifestyle habits, by offering a more thorough control over his/her overall health.
Overall the Vitafoods conference offered many new insights. When adopting these, check before going to market whether your regulatory strategy is up to standards!
Now that the US regulatory framework is shaping up, the analogies and differences with the European regulatory framework for market access for clean meat becomes more and more clear. This blogpost reports these analogies and differences, based on the agreement that the FDA and USDA recently concluded on their cooperation in the field of clean meat.
Joint action FDA-USDA in regulating cell-based meat
On 7 March 2019, the FDA and the USDA concluded a formal agreement (“7 March Agreement”) on their cooperation to oversee the production of cell-based meat from livestock and poultry. As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, in the EU the European Commission is the one stop shop for obtaining a Novel Foods authorization. In the US however, foods can be subject to regulatory oversight by multiple federal and state agencies. In general, USDA regulates meat and poultry, including the inspection of establishments that slaughter such animals or otherwise process meat and poultry products. FDA generally regulates all other food, including fish and certain other meat and poultry products, such as bison, rabbits, and wild turkeys and ducks.
Essence of the 7 March Agreement
The 7 March Agreement is quite a relief for the market players concerned. For instance, the Good Food Institute issued a press release, stating “The agreement is a significant step forward in providing a transparent and predictable regulatory path to market for cell-based meat, which will help to ensure that the U.S. does not fall behind Israel, China, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, and other countries that are moving quickly to ensure a clear path to market for this method of meat production”. In essence, according to the 7 March Agreement, FDA is competent to oversee cell culture and production up to harvest of the cultured meat cells, whereas USDA takes over responsibility as of harvest up to and including the actual production of clean meat products. For clarity, clean fish is not included in the 7 March Agreement, as this under the remit of FDA. It seems safe to assume however that what the agencies will do for clean meat and poultry, they will do for clean fish. This assumption is based on the agreement that the agencies will develop joint principles for product labeling to ensure that products are labeled consistently and transparently.
Analogies between EU and US
By far the most important analogy is that both regulatory systems aim to assure that clean meat products hitting the market are “safe, wholesome and unadulterated” (see point 4 B (3) of 7 March Agreement). In fact, to the EU Novel Foods Regulation aims to ensure “the effective functioning of the internal market while providing a high level of protection of human health and consumers’ interest.” In order to achieve this purpose, both regulatory systems require prior market authorization, but the way such authorization procedure is put in place is in fact quite different.
Differences between the EU and US
In order to visualize the differences between the two regulatory systems at each side of the Atlantic, I have created the schematic overview below. On the left side, I summarized the authority of the FDA and the USDA under the 7 March Agreement. On the right side, I outlined how legal authority is attributed in the EU and in its Member States. As a reference Member State, the Netherlands (“NL”) has been retained, as this is one of the EU countries where clean meat activities are prominent.
|1.||Pre-market consultation to evaluate production materials & processes||No formal pre-market consultation procedure in EU Novel Foods framework, except the optional consultation at Member State level in case of doubt whether the product qualifies as a Novel Food (which is clear in the case of clean meat)|
|2.||Oversee cell collection and quality of cell banks||Oversight of preparatory production steps, as well as registration of a company as a food business operator (FBO) will be done at Member State level. In the NL, FBOs working with products from animal origin, require a so-called recognition (“erkenning“). This is a more detailed procedure (average term: 8 weeks) than the mere registration of a FBO (average term: few days).|
|3.||Oversee production process until harvest|
|4.||Ensure companies comply with FDA requirements: facility registration, cGMP and other applicable food legislation|
|5.||Where needed: issuing regulations or guidance or additional requirements re. # (2) and (3) to ensure that biological materials exiting the culturing process are safe (FFDCA)||EU Hygiene regulation targeting food of animal origin (853/2004) to apply and potentially national legislation as well. In the NL, the Commodities Act Decrees on hygiene and on the preparation and packaging of foodstuffs are applicable. Additional requirements (“conditions of use”) may also be included in individual Novel Food authorizations.|
|6.||Inspections and enforcement directed at safety of cell banks and culturing facilities||Inspections and enforcement are done at Member State level. In the NL the responsible entity is the Dutch Food Safety Authority.|
|USDA (“post harvest”)|
|7.||Determine whether harvested cells are eligible to be processed in meat or poultry products||The NF-framework requires FBOs in their application for market authorization to specify the source of the product, its production process and typical compositional features. No additional eligibility test upon cell harvest prior to production of food products.|
|8.||Require each clean meat company to obtain a so-called grant of inspection||Not required under EU legal framework. Registration (or recognition) with the competent Food Safety Authority provides the authority with the legal basis for inspection. Obviously, a Novel Food authorization must also be obtained before placing the product on the market.|
|9.||Conduct inspections in establishments where cells cultured from livestock and poultry are harvested, processed, packaged or labeled to ensure that the resulting products are safe, unadulterated, wholesome and properly labeled.||Inspections will be executed at a Member State level, based on the Official Controls Regulation 854/2004 targeting products of animal origin for human consumption inter alia.|
|10.||Pre-approval of labeling of clean meat products and inspection thereof||No pre-approval of product labels under EU NF-framework. It is the responsibility of the FBO himself to comply with applicable labeling legislation, such as the Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011.|
|11.||Where needed: develop additional requirements to ensure the safety and accurate labeling of clean meat products||Safety and Labeling provisions already in place at EU level. These are embodied in the General Food Law Regulation 178/2002 and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 respectively. Furthermore, specific labeling requirements may be included in Novel Food authorizations. Also, post-market monitoring requirements may be imposed. In any event, FBOs should inform the Commission of any new relevant information regarding the safety of the NF they have placed on the market.|
|12.||Enforcement actions re. adulterated or misbranded food products||See comment to # 6. Competitors, consumers and watchdog organizations may also bring cases re. misleading food information before self-regulatory bodies. From example, unpermitted references to “meat” could be a topic of such cases.|
|Both FDA and USDA|
|13.||Each entity to cooperate with the other upon transfer or regulatory oversight at harvest|
|14.||Each party to notify the other if it identifies objectionable conditions resulting in adulterated / misbranded clean meat products|
No pre-market consultation in the EU
One of the most striking differences is that under the EU Novel Foods procedure, there is no formal pre-market consultation procedure to evaluate production materials and processes. I consider this to be a flaw in the law. Under the former Novel Foods Regulation that was in place until 1 January 2018, applications had to be filed with the competent authority at a Member State level. These authorities, at least in the Netherlands, were often willing to answer questions that arose during the preparation of applications. Under the current Novel Foods Regulation, applications have to be directly filed with the European Commission via an e-portal. There are no formal procedures to contact either the European Commission, or EFSA to answer questions on applications. If you manage to have informal consultation with an EFSA representative, no questions regarding particular applications will be answered, so a sectoral approach is your best bet. In short, we will have to learn by doing!
Written EFSA guidance
Where guidance by the Commission or EFSA on a personal level is not available, there is ample guidance based on a 2016 EFSA Scientific Opinion and a 2018 EFSA Technical Report. In fact, the 2016 Opinion provides detailed comments as to the various data to be provided in the Novel Food application, for instance on the identity of the Novel Food. For clean meat in particular, the identity of the cells from which the meat product is cultured should be provided, as well as the cell substrate used during the cultivation process, which should also be described in detail. The 2018 Report provides applicants with a completeness checklist, covering all items that should be specified in a Novel Food application. It also provides a helpful overview table of study reports contained in the technical dossier.
Contrary to the US, where enforcement is done by the authorities who also define the regulatory framework, enforcement in the EU is a national affair. This means that not the European Commission, nor EFSA are involved, but the national competent authorities. In the Netherlands, this is the Dutch Food Safety Authority, whose enforcement policy is on public record. For instance, enforcement measures directed at marketing clean meat without a proper Novel Food authorization translate into a penalty and the prohibition to further market the product. Since enforcement is a national affair, measures may vary from Member State to Member state. When marketing clean meat in Europe, it is therefore not sufficient to be familiar with the EU framework but one is strongly recommended to also gain local advice.
Open ends still occur at both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, the 7 March Agreement has given a flavor on how the FDA and USDA will cooperate, but “it does not create binding, enforceable obligations against either Agency.” So, it needs to be seen how this will work out in practice, for instance regarding the pre-approval of labels. Will the authority at Federal level take away the necessity for evaluation at State level? In the EU, it remains to be seen what type of studies EFSA will want to see to specify nutritional and toxicological information, as well as allergenicity: literature studies or rather in vitro or in vivo data?
At FoodHealthLegal, we will closely monitor the regulatory developments in the clean meat space, so stay tuned!
Credits for graphics: Mosa Meat
Recently, CBD food products were qualified as Novel Foods requiring a market authorization. The lively trade in these products therefore currently seems to be at risk. However, not all cannabis derived products are Novel Foods. What is the current state of play regarding these products and how is enforcement going to look like?
Current state of play re. cannabis derived products
In the European Union, the cultivation of Cannabis sativa L. varieties is permitted provided they are registered in the EU’s ‘Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species’ and the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content does not exceed 0.2 % weight per weight. The Common Catalogue is embodied in the EC Plant Variety database, which currently lists 68 species of Cannabis sativa. Some products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant or plant parts such as seeds, seed oil, hemp seed flour and defatted hemp seed have a history of consumption in the EU and therefore, in principle, are not novel.
This is different for extracts derived from Cannabis sativa L. and derived products containing cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD). It follows from a recent clarification of the Novel Food Catalogue that these products are considered Novel Foods, as a history of consumption regarding these products has not been demonstrated. This applies to both the extracts themselves and any products to which they are added as an ingredient. If for instance CBD is added to hemp seed oil, the product can no longer be marketed just like that and requires market authorization. The status of Novel Food also applies to extracts of other plants containing cannabinoids and to synthetically obtained cannabinoids.
How does the market of CBD food products currently look like?
Currently, the market in CBD food products is flourishing. A variety of CBD nutraceutical products is being offered for sale, such as HempFlax CBD, CBD oil, but also CBD-infused tea, honey or sweets. Although there is no hard-scientific evidence, many health benefits are connected to CBD food products, such as stress reduction, good night rest and providing energy and increasing resistance. Contrary to products containing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is also extracted from cannabis, you do not get high on CBD food products, as this is not a psychoactive substance.
Medicinal use of cannabis
The use of cannabis derived CBD in food is not to be confused with medicinal use of cannabis. In most cases of medicinally applied cannabis, the active ingredient is THC, not just CBD, or a combination of THC and CBD. Although medicinally applied cannabis does not play a role in the cure of diseases, scientific publications show it can alleviate suffering from diseases, for instance nausea, decreased appetite, slimming or weakening due to cancer.
Consequences for business of the change in legal framework
Due to the qualification of CBD food products as Novel Foods, the lively trade in these products is currently at risk. Any Novel Food has to obtain a market authorization in order to get market access. CBD food products currently marketed may face enforcement measures, unless they can benefit from the transition regime laid down in the Novel Foods Regulation. According to this transition regime, any product that did not fall within the scope of the former Novel Foods Regulation, was lawfully marketed prior to 1 January 2018 and for which an application for market authorization is filed before 2 January 2020, can continue to be marketed until an authorization decision has been taken. While this transition period is in principle drafted for Novel Foods that fall into one of the new novel food categories under the new Novel Foods Regulation, it is in the spirit of the transition regime to also include the CBD scenario.
Pending CBD-application and expected EFSA opinion
Currently, one application for the authorization of a CBD food supplement is pending. The application was made by the company Cannabis Pharma from the Czech Republic and is based on publicly available safety and toxicological information and toxicity reviews. More in particular, the scientific data has been gathered from acute and long-term toxicity studies in animals and tolerance studies in humans. The data package submitted aims to support the safety of the use of CBD in food supplements for adults with a daily intake of up to 130 mg or 1.86 mg/kg body weight. It is reported by various sources that an EFSA opinion is awaited this March (see here and here).
Any benefits for the CBD market of a positive EFSA opinion?
Contrary to the situation under the former Novel Foods Regulation, the authorizations granted under the current Regulation have a generic nature. This means that any other company meeting the conditions of use stated in the authorization, would be at liberty to market CBD food supplements as well. The pending application made by Cannabis Pharma is therefore followed with great interest by the CBD market. As they do not seem to rely on data protection, a granted authorization would pave the way for other food supplement companies. It is not certain if this will happen still this year. If and when EFSA grants a positive opinion this March, the European Commission still has 7 months to submit an implementing act to the PAFF Committee. Upon a positive opinion of the PAFF committee, such implementing act could be quickly adopted. If the PAFF Committee has no opinion or a negative opinion, 1 or 2 months should be added to the procedure as a minimum.
Ireland: some CBD food products can be marketed
Meanwhile, there is some guidance available at Member State level. The Irish Food Safety Authority notes that recently a large number of CBD food products entered the market, typically marketed as food supplements in liquid or capsule form. Depending on the manufacturing process applied, the trade in CBD oil is not prohibited, as this oil naturally contains low levels of CBD, which is considered a non-psychoactive compound. This applies to CDB oil obtained by cold-pressing the hemp seeds. If and when the oil is obtained by supercritical CO2 extraction, then a Novel Food authorization is mandatory.
Denmark: available guidance not crystal clear
According to the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, a number of Cannabis-derived products are not considered Novel Food, notably hemp seeds, seed flour, protein powder from seeds and seed oil from the Cannabis sativa L. varieties listed in the EC Plant Variety Database that are free from or contain low levels of THC. If these products contain CBD, the regulatory status is not exactly clear. According to the guidance of the Danish Food Ministry, the current status is that pure cannabidiol as well as hemp products with high (concentrated) levels of CBD or other cannabinoids are covered by the Novel Foods Regulation. It is not explained what is understood by “high levels of CBD”, but on the other hand an absolute prohibition to market these products in Denmark does not seem to apply.
Absolute prohibitions: Belgium and Austria
Other Member States seem to be stricter than Ireland or Denmark. For instance, the Austrian Health Ministry has made it perfectly clear that food products containing any type of cannabinoid extract without a Novel Food authorization are prohibited to be put on the market. In Belgium, the Federal Agency on Safety in the Food Chain has clarified that the production and marketing of food products based on cannabis is prohibited. The rationale is that the plant Cannabis sativa is mentioned in an annex to a national Decree listing dangerous plants that cannot be used for food production. The prohibition primarily seems to target the potentially dangerous substance of THC and allows derogations on a case-by-case basis, but not regarding food products containing CBD. These are considered Novel Foods requiring a market authorization.
Enforcement directed against (medical) claims in the Netherlands
Until CBD was declared a Novel Food, the trade in CBD food products was not prohibited in the Netherlands. Contrary to the substance TCH, the substance CBD is not mentioned in the Dutch Opium Act, listing prohibited substances having a psycho active effect. This does not mean that the trade in CBD food products was allowed just like that. In practice, enforcement in the Netherlands has been directed against the use of any unauthorized medical claims. A medical claim is any information according to which a food product could have a therapeutic or prophylactic effect. When using such a claim, one comes into the realm of the Medicinal Product Act, according to which it is prohibited to market and advertise any medicinal product without a market authorization. The Dutch Food Safety Authority announced fines up to
€ 10.000 regarding the sale of CBD food products in several cases (see here and here). Any food business operator that is serious about his business in CBD food products will therefore not only check the applicability of the Novel Foods Regulation to his products, but also carefully draft his advertisement for this type of product.
The production and marketing of food products derived from Cannabis sativa L. in the EU has been considerably restricted since CDB food products were recently declared to be Novel Foods. However, not all cannabis-derived food products require market authorization. Pending the evaluation of the Novel Food application filed for a CBD food supplement by the Czech company Cannabis Pharma, it is worthwhile for other CBD food products to verify whether they can benefit from the so-called transition regime embodied in the Novel Foods Regulation. Due to differences between legislation in the Member States, this may differ from country to country. Also, it is important to carefully position your CBD food product, in order to avoid any medical claims.
The author ackowledges Jasmin Buijs, paralegal at Axon, and Max Luijkx, intern at Axon, for their valuable input.
“The FDA knows just how vital it is to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and the critical role science-based, modern regulatory frameworks are to fostering innovation. Recent advances in animal cell cultured food products present many important and timely technical and regulatory considerations for the FDA and our partners at USDA,” said Commissioner Gottlieb. “We look forward to the opportunity to hold a meeting with our USDA colleagues as part of an open public dialogue regarding these products.”
Harvard Law School
This is a new quote taken from the website of the FDA, regarding a joint FDA – USDA meeting on animal cell culture technology on 23 and 24 October 2018 in Washington. Securing regulatory clearance is pivotal for market access of this type of products, which used to be often referred to as “clean meat,” “cell-based meat,” or “lab-grown meat,” depending on whom you would ask. Since the Good Food Conference early September, there seems to be consensus to retain the term “cell-based meat”. To date, there is however no consensus on the appropriate US regulatory framework for these products, which is why this new meeting has been set. In particular, it is not clear which federal regulatory agency – the FDA or USDA or both – has jurisdiction over these products with respect to labeling, safety and inspections, or whether these products will meet regulatory definitions relating to “meat” and “poultry.” Harvard Law School, in particular its representatives from the Food Law and Animal Law groups, recognizes the potential benefits of clean meat and other cellular agriculture products. Therefore, on 9 and 10 August 2018, the school organized the Clean Meat Regulatory Roundtable in order to address the regulatory concerns surrounding this new industry. Further to an earlier post on this subject, this is take #2 on the Harvard initiative, reporting a selection of topics discussed at that table. Also a comparison with the EU regulatory framework shall be made where relevant.
Participants Regulatory Round Table and Ruled of Play
In order to let the discussion benefit from as many perspectives as possible, representatives from academia, the industry and from interest groups participated in Harvard’s Clean Meat Regulatory Roundtable. Obviously, the meeting included a number of representatives from Harvard Law School. Furthermore, the nonprofit organizations Good Food Instituteand the Animal League Defense Fund were present. The participating companies were Mosa Meat and Fork & Goode (both working on clean meat), as well as Blue Nalu (working on clean fish). From the investor side, Stray Dog Capital was represented and from the industry DuPont provided its input. Finally, a number of US lawyers participated, including Deepti Kulkarni from Sidley Austin LLP. I myself shared my insights on this topic from an EU perspective. To encourage openness and the sharing of information, all participants agreed to a Chatham House Rules + regime, meaning that the topics discussed during the meeting could be reported, but the participants were not at liberty to identify, either explicitly or implicitly, the identity of the speaker or his or her affiliation.
Cooperation on optimal regulatory pathway?
Amongst the participants, there was a common concern that if one party rushes unprepared to the market, ignoring the appropriate regulatory pathways, that could poison the well for the entire cellular agricultural industry. It was therefore discussed to what extent the cellular agriculture industry could cooperate regulatory-wise. It became clear that even though clean meat products share certain characteristics, finished products could be quite different in terms of formulation, composition, or other product characteristics. Nonetheless, general principles for assessing safety and product identity could be established under existing regulatory authorities. Such principles could for instance involve considerations relating to substances used in the production of clean meat, including scaffolds, growth factors, and cell culture medium or potential variations in the production process. In addition, it was discussed whether common interests could be effectively promoted through a trade association or industry group. The participants discussed various options, including setting up a dedicated association and connecting with existing organizations such as BIO.
Contrary to the situation in the EU, where the European Commission is the one stop shop for obtaining a Novel Foods authorization, in the US foods can be subject to regulatory oversight by multiple federal and state agencies. It is has not yet been decided which agency has jurisdiction over these products, or whether the products are subject to dual oversight. In general, USDA regulates meat and poultry, including the inspection of establishments that slaughter such animals or otherwise process meat and poultry products. FDA generally regulates all other food, including fish and certain other meat and poultry products, such as bison, rabbits, and wild turkeys and ducks. In addition, FDA regulates new ingredients (as “food additives”) used in the production of foods under its jurisdiction, as well as new ingredients used in meat and poultry products that otherwise would be subject to USDA oversight.
Meat and poultry products subject to USDA jurisdiction generally require “continuous” or daily inspection, depending upon the nature and frequency of operations. Because the production of clean meat does not involve slaughtering animals and such products would not be derived from slaughtered animals, there are open questions regarding the applicability of USDA’s inspection regime. This is even more so when clean meat products are not “harvested” daily, but on a batch-based basis. Arguments, nonetheless, can be made in favor of USDA jurisdiction with respect to “processing” inspections and other in-market activities, as well as product labeling. Nevertheless, at the Roundtable, there seemed to be a slight preference for FDA jurisdiction both pre-market and in-market.
Traditional meat industry’s concern of level playing field
The views of the traditional meat industry are somewhat fractured with respect to the clean meat industry. Some have taken considerable stakes in clean meat ventures (consider the investments of both Tyson and Cargill in Memphis Meats), particularly industry segments more closely involved with raising livestock are less supportive. For example, the US Cattleman’s Association submitted a petition to the USDA in February this year, asking it to establish labeling requirements that would prohibit clean meat from using terms like “meat” or “beef” in product labeling. Most trade groups representing the traditional meat industry have called for a “level playing field” where clean meat products would be subject to some level of USDA inspection. In general, all participants at the Harvard Panel agreed that a discussion with the traditional meat industry on how clean meat should be regulated would be critical. Notably, clean meat producer Memphis Meats and the North American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents the largest meat producers in the U.S. recently issued a joint letter to the White House outlining a regulatory regime under both FDA and USDA, and calling for a combined meeting involving the White House, USDA, FDA, and representatives of the traditional meat and clean meat industries.
Even if the FDA were to have some level of jurisdiction over clean meat products, it is still not completely clear what data would need to be submitted to demonstrate safety. One of the participants opined that, unlike a food additive approval, neither a GRAS determination, nor an FDA consultation (see here for an example of a consultation procedure on plant based products) would result in an affirmative regulatory approval. Some were of the opinion that a regulatory opinion short of approval would not benefit the clean meat industry, particularly in the eyes of the public. By contrast, others particularly those familiar with the GRAS process and the requisite scientific information needed to demonstrate safety disagreed with the position that a GRAS determination would not be rigorous or otherwise appropriate. The participants then discussed that a potential hybrid model that followed the GRAS approach, but also involved a third-party safety opinion could be an option. As to the required data, it was discussed what would be the “ingredient” that would be assessed by the competent government agency. The substances used in the culture of clean meat products most likely are of relevance, even if they may qualify as mere processing aids that normally only remain as residues in the final product without technical function. One participant mentioned such substances could easily be tested in separate toxicology studies, to which reference could be made during the pre-market evaluation (US) or in the application for a Novel Foods authorization (EU).
EU market entry of Novel Foods
Compared to the US, the regulatory pathway for clean meat products in the European Union is relatively clear. Under the new Novel Foods Regulation (effective as per 1 January 2018), an application for an authorization of a Novel Food should be made with the European Commission, who will subsequently distribute this to all EU Member States. The application should in the first place contain a detailed description of the product for which an authorization is sought, as well as of its production process. Furthermore, a proposal for the purported conditions of use should be handed in and a labelling proposal that does not mislead the consumer. Last but not least, the applicant should provide scientific evidence, demonstrating the purported Novel Food does not pose a safety risk. For this purpose, tox studies that comply with Good Laboratory Practices are mandatory, as is an evaluation of the total safety strategy. This should be based on proposed uses and likely exposure, with justification to include or exclude certain studies in order to prevent cherry picking. Upon receipt of the Novel Food application, it is anticipated that the Commission will request a safety opinion from EFSA, who will evaluate, amongst other things, if the Novel Food concerned is as safe as food from a comparable food category already placed on the EU market. The EFSA evaluation should not exceed a 9 months term. Within 7 months after receipt of a positive safety opinion, the Commission should publish its implementing act, which will result in the inclusion of the approved Novel Food in the Union List. The single open end in this procedure is the term for response for the Member States, which in the former Novel Food Regulation used to be 60 days. Surprisingly enough, this term is not mentioned in the new Novel Food Regulation that applies as of 1 January this year. However, there are no reasons to believe this should be any different under the current Novel Foods Regulation.
In order to inspire consumer confidence in clean meat products, the participants discussed how to best ensure the products’ short and long-term safety, particularly against the backdrop of public fear and aversion to genetically modified foods. Despite the assurance that FDA provided regarding the safety of these foods, many consumers remain fearful or otherwise suspicious of such foods. The participants agreed that steps should be taken to avoid a similar unwarranted aversion to clean meat products, including transparency initiatives and consumer education. In this framework, it was suggested that the clean meat industry could pro-actively develop its own HACCP program, provided that the industry could reach agreement on what would be the best way to identify the hazards and applicable critical control points. To this respect, it is relevant that both FDA and USDA have HACCP regulations and have identified hazards of chemical, biological and physical nature that might be applicable to this new sector.
Labeling, marketing, product identity
Vivid discussions took place regarding whether or not clean meat or fish products could be called “meat” or “fish” respectively. Whereas some argued: “Meat is what it is, so meat it should be called”, others considered the actual name less important. Most likely, we will not see the plain term “meat” on product packaging, but rather “ground beef,” “meatballs,” or “chicken tenders”. Some participants cautioned that, in order for products to be labeled with such product-specified terms, they generally would have to meet the general definitions for “meat” or “poultry,” unless the labeling adequately described or qualified the product. For product placement, it is of relevance whether the clean meat products belong to the “meat department” or somewhere else, though several participants clarified that such placement is decided by agreements with retailers, rather than by regulatory oversight. All participants agreed that a so-called qualifier that would explain the exact nature of the product, could benefit the industry. Such qualifier should be a neutral term, explaining concisely how clean meat products differ positively from traditional meat products, without being pejorative vis-à-vis said traditional industry. This is easier said than done and the participants so far did not reach a common view at this point. Notably, in their joint letter to the White House, Memphis Meats and the North American Meat Institute, propose use of the term “cell-based” meat or poultry to describe products that are the result of animal cell culture. The echo of this letter was heard at the Good Food Conference, as reported above.
Information requirements in the EU
Looking at the EU framework, it is questionable whether the designation “meat” can be used for clean meat products. As an argument in favor thereof, it could be mentioned such use would make it immediately apparent that these products equal traditional meat in terms of composition. Arguments countering the use of “meat” are based on the EU Hygiene Regulation. When using a grammatical approach, it should be observed that “meat” is defined as “edible parts of [a number of defined]animals” and one could wonder if cells qualify as such. When using a functional interpretation, it can be noted that hygiene requirements applicable to meat mainly relate to slaughtering, whereas clean meat obviously is not subject to slaughter. Another argument countering the use of “meat” for clean meat products is derived from the ECJ’s TofuTown case, related to veggie cheese and soy yoghurt. In legal terms, this decision answered the question whether it was permitted to use regulated product names for new product types. The answer was a clear “no”. It is anticipated that the traditional meat industry will rely on this case to counter the use of the name “meat” for clean meat product, at least without a qualifier that will prevent any misleading of the consumer. By way of background, it is helpful to remember that under EU labeling laws, it is mandatory to designate a food product by its legal name. In the absence thereof, a descriptive name can be used or alternatively, a customary name.
Clean meat and clean fish represent an emerging sector, with the promise of revolutionary innovative products. Public perception of these products, as well as trust in the safety thereof, will be of utmost importance for market success. Reliable and effective regulatory procedures as a basis for market access will therefore be pivotal. In the US, the regulatory framework applicable to clean meat products is far from clear. Firstly, it is yet to be decided which government agency has jurisdiction over these products or whether both FDA and USDA share oversight. Secondly, there are open questions regarding the appropriate regulatory pathway and in-market inspection regime. In the European Union, the regulatory pathway for clean meat products is relatively clear. Under the new EU Novel Foods Regulation, these products qualify as Novel Foods and require a market authorization from the European Commission. The Regulation as well as various EFSA guidance documents detail at length what information should be contained in a Novel Foods application. In an optimal situation, the authorization procedure could be finalized in 18 months. In both the US and the EU however, the exact designation of these products (“meat” or not?) requires further thought. On the one hand, this will require interpretation of legal product definitions and case-law and on the other hand, the interests of the traditional meat and fish sector should be taken into account.
Cultured meat has been an increasingly hot topic since the first “clean meat” hamburger was introduced in London in 2013. The technology involves using cell culturing techniques to multiply a small amount of cells taken from an animal to produce foods that resemble traditional meat, poultry, and seafood. As commercial-scale production of cultured meat becomes foreseeable, regulatory agencies must determine how these products fit into their food compliance programs.”
Harvard Law School
This is a quote taken from the website of the FDA, who organized a public meeting on 12 July 2018 to discuss safety-related data and information that the FDA is seeking on foods produced using animal cell culture techniques. Securing regulatory approval is pivotal for market access of this type of products. To date, there is no consensus how the US regulatory apparatus will classify Clean Meat products. It is neither clear which authority has jurisdiction over these products as to labeling, safety and inspections. Harvard Law School, in particular its representatives from the Food Law and Animal Law groups, is convinced of the potential benefits of Clean Meat and other cellular agriculture products. Therefore, on 9 and 10 August 2018, it organized the Clean Meat Regulatory Roundtable in order to address the regulatory concerns surrounding this new industry. A selection of topics discussed will be covered in two subsequent blogposts. The first one will cover some background information and a summary. The second one will provide an overview of the most important subjects discussed and a comparison with the EU regulatory framework where relevant.
Participants Regulatory Round Table and Ruled of Play
In order to let the discussion benefit from as many perspectives as possible, representatives from academia, the industry and from interest groups participated in Harvard’s Clean Meat Regulatory Round Table. Obviously, the meeting included a number of representatives from Harvard Law School. Furthermore, the nonprofit organizations Good Food Institute and the Animal League Defense Fund were present. The participating companies were Mosa Meat and Fork & Goode (both working on clean meat), as well as Blue Nalu (working on clean fish). From the investor side, Stray Dog Capital was represented and from the industry DuPont provided its input. Finally, a number of US lawyers were participating and I myself shared my insights from an EU perspective. All participants agreed to a Chattam House Rules + regime, meaning that the general flush of the conversation during the meeting can be reported, but the participant are not at liberty to identify, either explicitly or implicitly, what was the source of particular information.
Clean meat and clean fish represent an emerging sector, with the promise of revolutionary innovative products. Public perception of these products, as well as trust in the safety thereof, will be of utmost importance for market success. Reliable and effective regulatory procedures as a basis for market access will therefore be pivotal. In the US, the regulatory framework applicable to clean meat products is far from clear. Firstly, it is yet to be decided which government agency has jurisdiction over these products. Secondly, the regulatory pathway is still open, whereas the available procedures of do not provide an affirmative blessing from which the sector could benefit. In the European Union, the regulatory pathway for clean meat products is relatively clear. Under the new Novel Foods Regulation (effective as per 1 January 2018), these products qualify as Novel Foods and require a market authorization from the European Commission. The Regulation as well as various EFSA guidance documents detail at length what information should be contained in a Novel Foods application. In an optimal situation, the authorization procedure could be finalized in 18 months. In both the US and the EU however, the exact designation of these products (“meat” or not?) requires further thought. On the one hand, this will require interpretation of legal product definitions and case-law and on the other hand, the interests of the traditional meat and fish sector should be taken into account.
Last week, the creation of the new Advisory Group on the Status of Borderline Products was published in the Dutch Government Gazette. The Advisory Group consists of expert representatives from the Healthcare Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority, the Medicines Evaluation Board and the Central Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects. Its task is to issue advice on the legislation to be applied to individual products / product groups / substances belonging to a group of so-called borderline products. The reason that this Advisory Group was created is that the regulations in the field of market authorization and research with such products are complex and that it is not always clear which law is applicable. In such case it is also not clear which enforcement authority is competent to act in case of violations of the law. This is deemed undesirable by both the marketplace and the government authorities and the Advisory Group aims to change this.
Demarcation issues not new
Demarcation issues at the interface of the laws applicable to food products and medicinal products are not new. Already in a 2008 Letter to Parliament, the Dutch Health Minister reported that there was insufficient clarity about the demarcation between medicinal products and herbal remedies. The Minister reported the issue that a herbal remedy could also be a medicinal product within the meaning of the Dutch Act of Medicinal Products (in which the Medicinal Products Directive 2001/83 has been implemented). This is a consequence of the fact that the Act does not make a distinction between the origin of any active substance, which can be of human, animal, vegetable or chemical origin. When a herbal preparation qualifies as a medicinal product by function or by presentation, the Act on Medicinal Products is equally applicable.
Measures announced in the Letter of Parliament
At the time, the Health Minister did not consider it necessary to adjust the regulations to prevent demarcation issues between food products and medicinal products. He considered the criteria of “medicinal product by presentation” and “medicinal product by function” to be sufficiently clear in the first place. Secondly, he expected a beneficial effect from the list of permitted health claims that still had to be published back in 2008. He anticipated that products bearing such claims would not qualify as a medicinal product by presentation. He did, however, consider it desirable to improve cooperation between the Heath Care Inspectorate and the Food Safety Authority. This was implemented by adjusting the Decree on Supervision of Public Health, as a result of which the Food Safety Authority gained authority to enforce violations of the Act on Medicinal Products. Furthermore, it was stipulated that the structured consultation between the Heath Care Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority and the Medicines Evaluation Board should be intensified, particularly regarding the discussion of the status of borderline products. One can say that this consultation in fact operated as an Advisory Group avant la lettre. Finally, it was determined that the already existing cooperation agreement between the Heath Care Inspectorate and Food Safety Authority had to be updated.
Demarcation issues more topical than ever
We now know that the clarification brought by the list of authorized health claims published in 2012 should not be overestimated. Nowadays many functional foods and nutraceuticals are marketed that claim medical properties. It quite often happens that it is not clear what is the applicable legislation to these products, because the boundary between health claims, disease risk reduction claims and medical claims is not immediately clear in all cases. Even when no specific claim is used, it can be debatable whether a product is a medicinal product by function or any other health product. It also happens that more or less the same products are marketed simultaneously as a medicinal product and as a foodstuff. Consider, for example, products containing glucosamine or St. John’s Wort. This means that food products containing the same active substance as medicinal products have not passed the prior testing for quality, safety and efficacy, which can be confusing for the consumer.
Consequences of product qualification
There are many examples of food products that were considered medicinal products by presentation. Consider, for example, the melatonin products which, after a remarkable turn in the Health Care Inspectorate policy, initially not but later on were considered to be medicinal products. More recently, a medical claim that Milk Thistle could prevent liver fattening was considered misleading. Furthermore, it was determined that a dietary supplement that would promote the natural immune system, would have a beneficial effect on heart and blood vessels and would help to treat fatigue qualified as a medicinal product. When such disputes are dealt with before the Civil Court, quite often fines are imposed for violations of the Act on Medicinal Products, prohibiting, among other things, the marketing and advertising of medicinal product without a marketing authorization. When these disputes are submitted to the Advertising Code Committee, usually a recommendation is made to no longer use such misleading information based on these regulations and the Code on Public Advertising of Medicinal Products. In order to prevent such enforcement activities, manufacturers of health products have every interest in knowing in advance how their product qualifies. They then know which regime applies to their product and can take this into account in their communication (advertising campaigns).
Working method Advisory Group
How does the Advisory Group work and which aspects are covered by its advice? Upon request of one of the competent authorities, the Advisory Group advises on the applicable legislation to individual products, product groups or substances. This advice gives a motivated indication of the law that applies to the opinion of the Advisory Group at the time of assessment and given the available information. “Available information” refers not only to factual information but also to applicable case law, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The advice will be presented to the Healthcare Inspectorate, the Food Safety Authority, the Medicines Evaluation Board and the Central Committee on Research Involving Human Subjects, who will subsequently respond to this within four weeks if so desired. If the responses give cause to do so, the Advisory Group reconsiders the advice and if necessary adjusts it. The advice is then recorded in its database, which is managed by its secretariat. There is also a possibility that the Advisory Council will not reach agreement on the applicable legislation. In such a case no advice is issued; this is also recorded in the database. The Advisory Group can also change its advice in the event of changes in the legal framework. The competent enforcement authorities must report those change to the Advisory Group, which registers an amendment to a previous advice in its database, if and when applicable. For clarity, the advice assesses neither the efficacy, safety or efficacy of medical products nor the content of any research protocols.
Added value Advisory Group
Can it be expected that the Advisory Group will make a substantial contribution to demarcation issues? In itself, the intensified co-operation between all the authorities involved, at market entry rather than upon enforcement during marketing, is to be welcomed. For example, in practice, food business operators also benefit from the working agreements between the Council on Advertising Health Products and the Food Safety Authority, on the basis of which health products bearing a “stamp” of said Council are in principle not exposed to enforcement actions by the Food Safety Authority. However, it appears from the currently published agreement between the parties involved in the Advice Group that only the enforcement authorities and not the individual manufacturers can request advice from the Advisory Group. This appears to be a missed opportunity, as is the fact that the efficacy of medicinal products remains explicitly outside the Advisory Council’s assessment. To qualify the essential character of a health product, efficacy is one of the essential factors. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the Advisory Group does not seem to address the issue of medical devices, while this qualification is closely linked to that of medicinal or food products. For example, cranberry pills against bladder infection qualify as medical devices and osmotic laxatives can be either medicinal products or medical devices.
Advice on market access for health products
For the time being, manufacturers of health products will continue to rely on private advice from qualified advisors on market access for health products. Nevertheless, the body of opinions to be produced by the Advice Group can be a valuable source of information, provided that its database will be publicly searchable. The rules of procedure of the Advice Group, which are yet to be made available, will have to provide clarity in this respect.
In their search for healthy foods, consumers nowadays often favour natural food products. But what is “natural” after all? Various interpretations could be given to this term. Amongst those figure unprocessed foods, foods without any chemical ingredients and organic foods. In reality, there is no harmonized concept of “natural foods” under EU food law. Food business operators should therefore mainly rely on the general principles of food information. In addition, they can use the nutrition claim “natural(ly)”, if and when applicable. Finally, they can turn to some specific pieces of EU legislation implementing the concept of “natural” for specific product an to a new ISO standard. This post aims to investigate what are the options for using the term “natural” based on the EU framework.
The most important principle under EU food law is that food information should not be misleading, in particular as to its characteristics, its nature and its composition. As such, it is prohibited to suggest that a food has particular characteristics, whereas in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics. For instance, certain additives, such as sweeteners or acids, may have a natural source, but the EU Additives Regulation does not make a distinction between “natural” or “artificial” (chemical) additives. Therefore, stating that a food product only contains natural preservatives could be misleading. The industry seems to have found its way around this issue. Instead of declaring an additive using the applicable E-number (for instance E 250 for sodium nitrate), the description of a natural compound having a similar technical function is used (for instance chard, having a similar preservative effect to sodium nitrate).
Where a food product naturally meets the conditions laid down in in the EU Claims Regulation for the use of a nutrition claim, the term “natural(ly) may be used as a prefix in the claim. For instance, if at least 20 % of the energy of the food product is naturally provided by protein, the claim “naturally high in protein” could be made regarding such product. Likewise, if a food product naturally contains at least 6 g fibre per 100 g product, the claim “naturally high in fibre” could be made. These claims should all relate to end products presented to consumers. As a B2B supplier of ingredients, you should therefore make the reservation to your clients that the admissibility of these claims depends on the mix of ingredients present in the end product.
The EU Flavouring Regulation constitutes a good example of targeted legislation with specific provisions on the use of “natural”. For instance, if the term “natural” is used to describe a flavour, the flavouring components should be entirely of a natural origin. Nevertheless, the term “natural flavouring” can be used in a situation where a clear relationship between different source materials in the flavouring component and the overall flavour-profile is lacking. For instance, an umami flavouring preparation consisting of certain vitamins and minerals in combination with certain fermentation media can still be labelled as “natural flavouring”.
The Dutch Advertising Code Committee (DACC) demonstrated in one of its decisions last year that the rules on the use of the term ‘‘natural’’ under the EU Flavouring Regulation can also be applied by analogy. The claim in the case in question related to BenBits chewing gum advertised as being “100 % natural”. A competitor denied that all ingredients used in this chewing gum were of a natural character. In deciding the dispute, the DACC took the expectation of the average, reasonably well-informed consumer as a starting point. Such consumer would expect the term “natural” to cover both the ingredients and the preparation processes used. BenBits could not demonstrate that the xylitol used in its product had been manufactured in accordance with one of the traditional preparation processes referred to in the EU Aroma Regulation, such as fermentation. The use of the claim “100 % natural chewing gum” was therefore considered misleading.
Recently, a new ISO standard was made available, containing technical criteria for food ingredients to be considered as natural. This standard is intended for use in B2B communications and conformity thereto helps to assure a level playing field and fair practices. According to this standard, food ingredients shall be considered as natural when certain criteria regarding both their source materials and their ways of processing are met. When a food product consists of various ingredients, for each ingredient these cumulative criteria should be met. An informative decision three in this standard helps its user decide whether or not a food ingredient is to be considered natural.
At Member State level, such as in the UK and in France, national guidance has been formulated for the use of the term “natural”. For instance, the UK Food Standard Agency issued guidelines for the use of this term and in France the Directorate General on Competition developed similar guidelines specifically targeting dairy products. These Guidelines, as well as relevant EU and national case law will be discussed during the Vitafoods session planned on 16 May from 11.20 – 12.00 AM. Hope to see you there!
Consumers across all demographics are increasingly concerned about cognitive health and performance. For that reason, Food Matters Live, held in London from 21 – 23 November last, dedicated one of its Seminars to the exploration of new R&D advancing the understanding of nutrition and cognitive health and performance. I was asked to give a presentation on meeting standards for cognitive claims, of which you will find a summary below. You will note that in addition to the system of currently authorised claims, I will explore its flexibility, as well as the options outside its scope.
The general framework for health claims is contained both in the FIC Regulation and in the Claims Regulation. The FIC Regulation embodies the principle of fair information practises. According to this principle food information should not be misleading as to the characteristics of the food, for example by attributing it effects it does not possess. Furthermore, the FIC Regulation prohibits any medical claims to be made in connection with food products. A medical claim is to be understood as any claim targeting the prevention or treatment of a particular disease. It is for instance not permitted to state that a food supplement alleviates the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
The Claims Regulation lays down the very concept of a health claim, being a voluntary message in any form that states or suggests that a food has particular characteristics. Basically, a health claims conveys the message “What does the product do?” Health claims can only be made with regard to a particular nutrient that has been shown to have a beneficial nutritional of physiological effect. Such nutrient should be present in the end product in a form that is bio available and to such extent that it produces the claimed effect. The scope of the Claims Regulation includes all commercial communications regarding food products to be delivered to the final consumer. Based on the Innova / Vital decision of the ECJ, it was clarified that such final consumer can also be a health care professional.
Legal framework for cognitive claims
Currently, authorised claims for cognition can be linked to iodine, iron and zinc. For all of these compounds, the claim “contributes to the normal cognitive function” can be made. In addition, for iodine the claim “contributes to the normal functioning of the nervous system” is available and for iron a claim specifically targeting children can be made. The conditions of use for these claims are calculated on the reference intake (“RI”) applicable to each mineral. As such, a distinction is being made between solids (15 % RI) and fluids (7.5% RI). For instance, in order to allow a cognition claim linked to iron, the end product should at least contain 2.1 mg iron / 100 g or 1.05 mg / 100 ml. Any claim should refer to a food product ready for consumption, prepared in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Flexibility in wording
In practise, I see that many food business operators try to reword the authorised claims, as they are not considered to be a major add-on. In the Netherlands, this practise has been facilitated by the Council for the Public Advertising of Health Products (Keuringsraad KOAG-KAG), who has published a list of alternative, authorized claims. For instance, for a claim on zinc, the Dutch translation of the wording “contributes to a regular problem-solving ability” is permitted as an alternative. Regarding a claim on iodine, you could think of “plays an important role in mental activity.” Furthermore, it is also permitted to state that a food product containing the required minimum of iron “contributes to regular intelligence”. Now we are talking!
Examples found in practise
An internet search for products targeting cognition revealed that many of them are not linked to the EU authorized claims at all. For instance, the company Flora Health is marketing the food supplement ginkgo biloba, claiming that it “helps to enhance cognitive function and memory in an aging population.” Also, the food supplement Mind Focus containing various vitamins, minerals and green tea extract from the company Bio Fusion was found, which allegedly “improves mind focus and concentration instantly”. Furthermore, the green oat product Neuravena was found, regarding which five clinical studies confirm it benefits to cognitive function. How can this be explained? The first two examples contain claims that in the EU would no doubt qualify as medical claims and as such are prohibited.
Non-EU products and options outside cognitive claims framework
Products that do not comply with EU standards may originate from other countries or territories that are subject to a different regulatory regime than applicable in the EU. Without endorsing any claims made, it was found that the gingko and Mind Focus products originated from Canada and the US respectively. The same is not true for the product Neuravena, as its manufacturer Frutarom claims to be a “global manufacturer of health ingredients backed by the science, and supported with documentation and the regulatory compliance our customers demand.” The difference here is that Neuravena is not advertised on a commercial setting targeting end consumers, but in a scientific portal. The website even contains a disclaimer to that extent. In a non-commercial, purely scientific environment, the Claims Regulation is not applicable. This allows FBO’s, provided that the same website does not contain a click through ordering portal, to communicate on their R&D and cognition even outside the authorised EU framework.
The EU authorised claims for cognition are limited in number and scope. Several EU Member States offer considerable flexibility in wording, which makes the use of claims much more appealing. Furthermore, in a science-based context, the Claims Regulation is not applicable, which allows you plenty of opportunity to communicate your latest R&D on nutrition & cognition, provided that the message is strictly scientific and not commercial.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently took its decision in the TofuTown case, providing clarity on the interpretation of the Agricultural Product Standards Regulation (APS Regulation). In short, this case dealt with the question: “Is it possible to use regulated product names for new product types?” The answer to this question is a clear “no”. This came as quite a shock to the emerging vegetarian and vegan market. Many companies marketing alternative protein products use traditional product names for their dairy replacements. They may have to change these names, as they are no longer in line with the view of the highest EU Court.
Initiator: Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb
The TofuTown case was initiated by the German unfair competition association Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb (“VSW”). This activist organisation was also at the origin of the Innova Vital case, clarifying the scope of the EU Claims Regulation. Based on this decision, we now know that the Claims Regulations not only targets commercial communications addressing final consumers, but under certain circumstances, it also addresses communications made to health care professionals. VSW initiated the present case against the German company TofuTown, as it claimed the promotion of strictly plant-based products under denominations such as “Soyatoo Tofubutter”, “Pflanzenkäse” and “Veggiecheese” infringed the EU competition rules.
Main rule of Agricultural Product Standards Regulation
The legal framework of this dispute is constituted by the APS Regulation, containing detailed agricultural products definitions in various sectors, such as cereals, olive oil, wine, milk and milk products. The main rule following from the APS Regulation is that the names of regulated products may not be used for other products. TofuTown had argued, in essence, that this principle is outdated. In the past, such rule may have been justified to protect consumers against manufacturers distributing cheap products as dairy products, thereby gaining a competitive advantage. Nowadays, consumer awareness has changed considerably and many consumers want to be informed about alternatives to dairy products. Using regulated dairy names for plant-based alternatives is not meant to mislead consumers. Quite to the contrary, such use enables to inform the consumer on plant-based origin of their products as opposed to the animal derived dairy products they intend to replace. The ECJ did not agree with this argument. It is nevertheless worthwhile to investigate if any other argument could escape the strict product name regime embodied in the APS Regulation.
Room for manoeuvre in APS framework?
On the face of it, there is. The Commission is empowered to adopt delegated acts concerning exemptions to the strict product definitions laid down in the APS Regulation, provided these shall be strictly limited to demonstrated needs resulting from evolving consumer demand, technical progress or the need for product innovation (see article 78.3 APS Regulation). Tofutown’s plea for informing consumers about plant-based alternatives to dairy products seems to fit in seamlessly in this derogation. However, for the time being, there is no such delegated act, so that it is worth while exploring if there any further exceptions to the strict product names principle embodied in the APS Regulation.
In fact, two of these exceptions are being mentioned in the TofuTown case. In the first place, designations for milk products may also be used in association with words designating composite products. The condition precedent is that no part takes the place of any milk constituent. Furthermore, milk should also be the essential part of such composite product, either in terms of quantity or for the characterisation (see Annex VII belonging to the APS Regulation, in particular Part III, nr. 3 thereof). An examples of such composite product names is chocolate milk.
Another exception to the system of strict product names relates in the first place to products the exact nature of which is clear from traditional usage. In the second place it covers designations that are clearly used to describe a characteristic quality of the product. The Commission has drawn up a limitative list of such product names that can be found here. Examples of such product names are the following:
- UK: horseradisch cream, cream crackers and coconut milk
- France: almond milk (lait d’amande) and oat cream (crême d’avoine)
- Spain: almond milk (leche de almendras)
- Netherlands: butter beans (boter bonen) and cacao butter (cacao boter)
This list has a highly cultural character and does not allow for translations of the product names mentioned therein into other Member States languages. As such, it would be prohibited to market almond milk in or any other EU country than France and Spain. The same goes for butter beans outside the Netherlands.
It could be argued that names like “Tofubutter” and “Veggiecheese” are clearly used to describe a characteristic quality of the product. However, as long as they are not mentioned on the Commission exemption list, these cannot be legally used for marketing plant-based alternatives to dairy products. More in general, the practical consequences of the TofuTown decision are expected to bring about serious restrictions for marketing plant-based products. Is this to be considered a setback for the consumer or to the contrary, will this prevent any consumers being misled? In fact, this is besides the point, as based on this decision, the enforcement authorities, like the Dutch Food Safety Authority (“NVWA”) in the Netherlands, will be authorised to prohibit further use of strictly regulated product names for their vegetarian peers. It will be interesting to see though if any enforcement actions will take place based on the mere product name. And also, will this be in the interest of the educated consumers of today? That’s certainly not beside the point.
Can unhealthy foods enter the ‘health halo’? The boundaries of health claims in the absence of nutrient profilesPosted: July 18, 2017 | |
To date, about 30% of pre-packed food products marketed in the EU have entered the ‘health halo’, attracting consumers by scientifically proven health benefits. The Claims Regulation provides that food products must comply with so-called nutrient profiles in order to bear health claims. Although the Commission had to establish these nutrient profiles by 2009, it is a well-known fact this has not yet been achieved. This might sound like a carte blanche for the food industry to guide consumers in their dietary decisions. Quite to the contrary, ‘common sense’ seems to set the boundary for food products that can carry health claims. The Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) recently demonstrated in the Dextro case (for an English summary, see here) that there is no unlimited freedom for advertising essentially unhealthy foods. This decision must be seen in the light of society’s battle against obesity and other adverse health effects related to food products high in fat, salt and sugar (“HFSS foods”). The current post puts the Dextro decision into context and aims to deduce some learning therefrom.
The German company Dextro Energy is known for its cubes almost entirely consisting of glucose. Back in 2011, the company requested the authorization of 5 claims stating the positive effects related to energy and muscle function that consumption of the cubes brings about. Examples include: “glucose supports normal physical activity” and “glucose contributes to normal muscle function.” Following the official procedure to have such a claim authorized, the cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of the glucose cubes and the claimed health benefits needs to be proven by EFSA. While EFSA did provide a positive opinion, this did not result in an authorized health claim. The Commission has the last say in the procedure, including political, social and economic concerns into its decision. In the Dextro case, the Commission reasoned that the claims conveyed a ‘contradictory and ambiguous message’ to consumers. Although the human body needs a certain amount of glucose, the claim contradicts the current trend of the equally scientifically underpinned advice to reduce of sugar intake. According to the Commission, additional statements or warnings would not make up for the misleading claims. Dextro Energy challenged, amongst others, the Commission’s discretion to disallow a scientifically proven health claim. Both the Court in First Instance and the Court of Appeal countered the company’s arguments.
Setting the scene: health claims on other sugary products
The decision of the ECJ did not come as a surprise. Last summer, the European Parliament rejected controversial caffeine claims on energy drinks. Similar to the considerations in the Dextro case, health claims on sugary products were feared to nudge consumers towards poor consumption choices. Also, the request by Kinder Chocolate for authorization of a health claim on milk contributing the child development has been rejected. This rejection took place on a different ground, as the request was considered to lack the required scientific underpinning. Barry Callebaut was more lucky with its request for authorization of a health claim on cocoa flavanols in cocoa beverages with cocoa powder, dark chocolate, capsules or tablets. The claim refers to a beneficial contribution to the normal blood circulation and so the maintenance of elasticity of blood vessels. Of course, this claim might stimulate chocolate consumption. The difference, however, lays in the fact that the focus is on cocoa flavanols as bioactive compounds in cocoa extract. As opposed to the aforementioned substances glucose and caffeine – which are already controversial themselves – no HFSS food is directly involved. The claim was approved in 2015, being the first in kind in the chocolate field.
Industry pleas for nutrition profiles
Nutrition profiles were meant to prohibit nutrition and health claims on essentially unhealthy foods. As their establishment took so long, thereby creating uncertainty for the industry, the European Parliament initially considered to call them off. However, as shown in the Dextro case, the absence of nutrient profiles caused the Commission to rely on the very general principle of misleading in the appreciation of the claims at stake. This is the key item in food information matters both embodied in the Claims Regulation (article 3 (a)) and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (article 7 (1)). As this concept of misleading is pretty broad and thereby not well-defined, food companies introduced a plea in favor of the establishment of nutrient profiles. This would shape the level playing field for all FBO’s and ensure that unhealthy foods cannot be promoted using health claims. Five leading food companies have recently called on the Commission in a public letter to take up its task of establishing nutrient profiles. Health and consumer organizations were also involved in the letter, arguing that a clear exclusion of nutrition and health claims on HFSS foods will benefit consumer behavior.
The road forward
To prevent ambiguous health claims, the prohibition of such claims on beverages containing more than 1,2% alcohol is already explicitly mentioned in Health Claims Regulation. Will claims on HFSS foods be limited in the same manner? The open letter by the industry and other relevant parties is a push into that direction. The establishment of nutrient profiles could mean that the beneficial health effects attributed to cocoa flavanols can no longer be used on those chocolate products classified as ‘unhealthy’, for instance due to their high sugar content usually present in milk choclate. However, at this moment, it cannot be predicted whether the Commission will take up its task after about 10 years of delay. Meanwhile, the ECJ backs the criterion of misleading to fill the regulatory gap. Based on the examples mentioned above, ‘common sense’ based on generally accepted scientific principles provides the line between acceptable use of health claims and misleading practices.
As demonstrated in the Dextro case, health claims on HFSS foods are perceived misleading in society’s current fight against obesity and other diet-related disorders. The ECJ backed a Commission decision rejecting Dextro’s claims, considering the pro-glucose plea contained therein to be in violation of the principle that food information should not be ambiguous and misleading This case is not the first of its kind. Other examples of claims possibly driving consumers towards unintended unhealthy food choices include caffeine in energy drinks. As a consequence, those claims were rejected too. The general learning that can be drawn from these cases is that claims should not be considered in isolation, but in the context of generally accepted scientific standards. As an advice to FBO’s considering filing or using such claim, I recommend not to lose an eye for the context in which the claim is used. This basically comes down using common sense when using or applying for health claims. Does not that make sense?
The author is grateful to Jasmin Buijs, intern at AXON, who co-wrote this post.