Traditionally milk comes from cows or other animals such as goats. However, in recent decades, a large number of alternatives to traditional milk were introduced to the market. From a consumer perspective, these alternatives are similar to “traditional milk” in terms of purpose of use. These alternative food products are produced using plant-based protein derived from soy, coconut or other sources. There is an ongoing debate in the US regarding whether or not these ‘alternative milks’ are to be considered ‘milk’ and can be sold as such. This debate could be the precursor to a much more encompassing debate on whether alternative sources for traditionally produced foods from animal origin can be named after the product they are meant to replace, or rather marketed to be the plant based alternative for. This post will elaborate on this discussion, and will discuss the relevant EU framework and prejudicial questions in the Tofutown case pending at the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”)
The dairy controversy
The dairy controversy has arisen as more and more plant-based food companies are marketing their products as ‘milk’ (“Alternatives”), be it as almond milk or soymilk, but nonetheless as ‘milk’. In the US, the traditional dairy industry (mostly cow milk) has tried to stop the use of the word ‘milk’ for Alternatives, because, its representatives are of the opinion that the term is misleading when used to describe what are in fact Alternatives. This plea did not go unheard and the milk lobby, in combination with a number of lawmakers in the American congress, presented the draft Dairy pride act. The Dairy pride act limits the use of the term ‘milk’, to milk produced from animals (including products such as ‘traditional’ butter). In reaction, the NGO Good Food Institute filed a report claiming that the arguments presented by the traditional dairy industry are invalid. This NGO is of the opinion that no consumer is misled as long as the name of the product ‘milk’ is combined with the alternative source for the milk production. If, and when, the Dairy pride act will enter into force is still unclear.
If you think a similar regulation would be inconceivable in the EU, think again. In fact, in the EU a number of products have a legal definition included in marketing standards. The purpose of these legal definitions is to protect consumers against misleading and to create a level playing field for food business operators (“FBO’s”). For products such as honey, chocolate, and olive oil such legislation exists, which regulates the production process and name under which the product can be sold. In addition to such marketing standards mostly laid down in EU Directives, regulating single products or production chains, there is a general Regulation on agricultural production. This Regulation includes marketing standards for certain agricultural products.
Regulation 1308/2013 establishes a common organization of the markets in agricultural products (hereinafter: CAP Regulation). This regulation lays down production rules for particular agricultural products such as, but not limited to, wheat, wine, and several meat products. The CAP Regulation also applies to milk and milk derived products, and contains the following definition of milk:
‘”Milk” means exclusively the normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings without either addition thereto or extraction therefrom.’
Apart from the product ‘milk’, Annex VII part 3 of the CAP Regulation reserves the following terms exclusively for milk products: whey, cream, butter, buttermilk etc. (the list contains 16 products traditionally produced using milk).
A strict interpretation of article 78.1 in combination with article 78.2 and Annex VII part III of the CAP Regulation would mean that the term ‘milk’ should only be used for milk products from animal origin. The norm does not contain an exception for plant-based alternatives. However, it is unclear whether milk can be used if it is combined with an explicit mention of the plant-based origin of the product such as soy. It can be argued that the Alternatives do not qualify as ‘milk’, and that, therefore, the Regulation does not apply to Alternatives. This precise issue is currently the subject of a the Tofutown case pending at the ECJ (C-442/16).
The Tofutown case
Tofu is made from soya beans. The German company TofuTown.com sells alternatives to butter and cheese from mammalian origin. The company markets their Tofucheese and Tofubutter as plant-based alternative to the traditional cheese and butter. Neither products contain any ‘milk’, and are marketed towards vegetarians and/or vegans who prefer plant-based alternatives for cheese and butter. The Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb (German Competition Authority) objected to the use of the words ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ in the tofu products because, in their view, tofutown.com did not comply with the CAP Regulation as the products were not milk-based. The German court requested the answering of preliminary questions by the Court of Justice of the European Union on the interpretation of the above-mentioned rules regarding the product names. The following prejudicial questions were put forward:
- Can Article 78(2) of the CAP Regulation be interpreted as meaning that the definitions, designations and sales descriptions defined in its Annex VII need not satisfy the relevant requirements of this Annex if the relevant definitions, designations and sales descriptions are expanded upon by clarifying or descriptive additions (such as ‘tofubutter’ for a pure plant-based product)?
- Is Annex VII, Part III, point 1, to the CAP Regulation to be interpreted as meaning that the expression ‘milk’ is exclusively the normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings without either addition thereto or extraction therefrom, or may the expression ‘milk’ — where necessary with the addition of explanatory terms such as ‘soya-milk’ — also be used in the marketing of plant-based (vegan) products?
- Is Annex VII, Part III, point 2, to the CAP Regulation, in conjunction with Article 78, to be interpreted as meaning that the descriptions listed in detail in point 2(a), such as, in particular, ‘whey’, ‘cream’, ‘butter’, ‘buttermilk’, ‘cheese’, ‘yoghurt’ or the term ‘cream’ etc., are reserved exclusively for milk products, or can pure plant-based/vegan products, which are produced without (animal) milk, also fall within the scope of Annex VII, Part III, point 2, to the CAP Regulation?
One of the core principles of food law, besides safety, is the principle that foodstuffs shall not mislead consumers. This ‘misleading argument’ is the main argument used by the dairy lobby in the US to justify the restriction of the use of the term ‘milk’ solely for milk from cows or other animals. We share the view of the Good food institute that the names would be misleading is not acceptable. No consumer is misled when buying an alternative plant based product such as ‘soy milk’, because the products are clearly marketed as alternative and the origin is mentioned in the product name and on the front of the pack, as well as in the legal name. However, we are of the opinion that labeling of these Alternatives should never be similar to traditional milk products, or carry pictures of cows or other animals that provide milk.
Precursor to bigger debate on plant-based alternatives
Milk is not the only product definition under scrutiny; the discussion is already spreading to meat products. Traditional food producers feel the heat from competitors producing Alternatives for their products. These Alternatives are not only suitable for vegetarians and vegans, but also for the mainstream consumer who could be concerned with the environmental impact of meat or perhaps is lactose intolerant. The Alternatives are plenty and range from the use of soy to algae or even insects to replace the traditional product. Many Alternatives have not only animal welfare in mind, but also sustainability.
In the Netherlands the Vegetarian Butcher made headlines, because he used terms reserved for meat products for his vegetarian alternatives. Instead of waiting for a court to rule on the matter, the vegetarian butcher chose to change his terms slightly to avoid being penalized for using the wrong terms. To give an example, “gehakt” (mincemeat) became “gehacked”, which, in Dutch sounds the same, but formally has a different definition. The Vegetarian Butcher also published a statement on YouTube to clarify why he changed the product names. Perhaps this could be the solution for producers of alternatives for traditional animal derived products, in case the ruling of the CJEU is in favor of the traditional producers. Another idea would be to introduce the term ‘malk’ (‘a’ is derived from plant); ‘milk’ or milk products produced using plant-based sources.
A debate is ongoing in the US regarding the definition of milk and whether plant-based alternatives can use the term ‘milk’ to describe their products. In the EU, the definition is already part of a Regulation, which forbids the use of the term ‘milk’ in other products than milk of animal origin. The Tofutown case will hopefully clarify if producers of Alternatives will be able to use terms such as milk, which are traditionally linked to products from animal origin, if the producer mentions the source of the milk together with the term ‘milk’. We have seen this debate is not limited to ‘milk’, but also includes other products for which non-animal alternatives are available and marketing standards such as the CAP Regulation apply to. We will keep you posted on developments in the debate on definitions of Alternatives. Please do not hesitate to share your view on this topic with us!
During the two days event in Wageningen, on 17 and 18 May this year, food start-ups will have the opportunity to give their best before an audience of seasoned investors. In the same time, those investors will have the chance to satisfy their appetite for tasty food start-ups. During this event, Karin Verzijden will moderate a debate between food start-ups on the convergence of food and health. The Q&A below provides a sneak peak into the topics that will be touched upon during that debate.
F&A Next: What is “healthy food” and to what extent food can contribute to health?
Karin: Although there is no such thing as a definition of healthy food, there are numerous guidelines on healthy diets. At the end of 2015, the WHO published a report that shocked food business operators (“FBO’s”), especially those involved in the meat industry. One of the WHO recommendations was to eat less processed meat, as the consumption of 50 g processed meat per day would increase the chance to develop colon cancer with 18 %. In line therewith, the Dutch dietary guidelines 2015 (“Richtlijnen Goede Voeding”) published by The Health Council propagate that a shift in the direction of a more plant-based and less animal-based dietary pattern improves health. In general it can be stated that according to various different health organisations, the consumption of certain foods or refraining therefrom can certainly contribute to health.
F&A Next: How do specific groups benefit from e.g. personalized food?
Karin: Specific groups of people may require specific types of food. For instance, it is known that elderly people recovering from surgery in the hospital lose a lot of muscle mass. They could benefit from so-called food for special medical purposes rich in protein. Anticipating that such food will enhance their recovery, this may in the end reduce hospitalization time and thereby costs. For the time being, this is as close as its gets to personalized food, but this may be different in future.
F&A Next: How “personal” is food likely to become and what type of legal issues may come into play?
Karin: In the future, it is conceivable that food will be delivered through the use of 3D-printing, both in a care setting and at home. In a care setting, one could imagine that very fragile patients having swallow problems could benefit from smooth printed food delivered on their plate in a very attractive way. When a hospital nutritionist would like to add extra vitamins or minerals, it is very likely that the upper limits laid down in the legislation on fortified foods needs to be taken into account. Furthermore, both in a home and care setting, interesting questions as to food safety may occur. For instance, when safety of 3D-printed food is compromised, who would be responsible for that? The manufacturer of the 3-D printing machine, the supplier of the raw materials or the user of the 3D-printing device, who in fact has promoted from a consumer into a “prosumer”? Finally, when 3D-printed foods hit the market as end products, they may be covered by the Novel Food legislation on new production methods. This would imply that such product would require a market authorization prior to marketing.
F&A Next: How can FBO’s communicate on potential health benefits of food without incurring the risk that they advertise a medicinal product or a medical device?
Karin: In the EU, there is a well-defined framework for nutrition and health claims to advertise health benefits of food products. A nutrition claim implies that a food product has certain beneficial properties in terms of nutrients and energy (“What’s in the product?”). Health claims state there is a relationship between food and health (“What does the product do?”) As long as the FBO sticks to the authorized claims (of the allowed variations) and they satisfy their conditions of use, there is no problem to be expected. FBO’s should however stay away from claiming that their food product can prevent or cure certain diseases, as they then clearly enter in to the medical arena. Based on criteria laid down medicinal products legislation, food and health authorities are authorized to take enforcement measures regarding food products that are advertised as having such medicinal properties. This can result into serious fines of six digits.
F&A Next: What actions are required from FBO’s to substantiate the health effects of their food products?
Karin: This depends on the type of claim made. For instance if the FBO claims his product is high in protein, he has to be able to justify upon request that the 20 % of the energy value of the product is provided by protein. When a FBO claims regarding a barley product that barley beta-glucans may reduce blood cholesterol, whereas high cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease, he should meet very specific criteria on the level of barley beta-glucan (3 g per day). Finally, when a FBO wants to obtain a so-called proprietary claim, he should initiate clinical trials in order to identify the relationship of cause and effect between a particular nutrient and its alleged health effect.
December is the month of festivities and food. Could insects be part of this tradition in the long run? On 8 and 9 December last, the InsectCentre organized seminar on edible insects in Wageningen. The seminar brought together the insect rearing business of Europe, as well as investors and academics, to discuss opportunities and restrictions for insect rearing in Europe. The seminar covered insect autonomy, insect rearing, economics and legislation. For some background information on the opportunities of insect rearing in the Netherlands, see this document. The focus of this blog will be on the legislation regarding insects in food and feed as discussed in the seminar, combined with our sector knowledge by way of background.
Why the interest in insects?
Insects are extremely versatile and can be put to use in many ways. Insects are the most species rich class of organisms on earth, of which (approximately) 2.500 species are edible. In EFSA’s 2015 report on ‘Risk profile related to production and consumption of insects as food and feed’, 12 of the 2500 edible species are mentioned as having the biggest potential to be used in food and feed. In other parts of the world, insects are a staple food and some insects are even seen as a delicacy. The two most commonly commercially reared insects in the EU for feed applications are the larvae of the black soldier fly and for food applications the lesser mealworm (buffalo) seems to have the best potential. Many insects are pathogenic or too small in size to be commercially interesting to rear. However, during the past years, steady growth in the worldwide demand for alternative protein sources has lead to a renewed interest in insects as a potential source of food and feed. Insects can be viewed as mini short cycled livestock for producing protein. Insect protein is an interesting source of protein due to the quality of the insect protein as opposed to plant-derived protein. Animal protein (so also insect derived protein) has a superior amino acid content compared to plant-derived protein. With a growing world population, the demand for meat production and protein will only increase. Currently soya is imported into the EU for feed purposes. Insects might be a (partial) replacement for this soya in the future, and can even be produced in the EU instead of being imported.
Insects in food
Insects can be reared to produce food as a whole or processed as ingredients for food. As explained in one of our previous blogs, only in some Member States a number of insects are permitted to be used in food, meaning that no enforcement measures regarding such use is taking place. The previously mentioned EFSA report contains the assessment of the risks associated with insects used in food and feed. In short, the overall conclusion was that the safety of farmed insects for use in food and feed strongly depends on both the substrate and the processing of the insects. Further research is needed to be able to fully assess the safety of insects to be used in food and feed.
Current and future regulatory status of insects
Under the current Novel Food Regulation, whole insects are not explicitly regarded as Novel Foods. The rationale therefore is that the category of “food ingredients isolated from animals” are not considered to cover animals (insects) as a whole. However, this will change under the new Novel Food Regulation, entering into force on 1 January 2018, as of when insects will be considered Novel Foods. See our previous blog for further info on the contents of this regulation and the changes in respect of the current Regulation. Under the new Novel Foods regime, it remains to be seen how the competent authorities of the Member States will deal with FBO’s currently using insects in food.
Enforcement as of 1 January 2018
Even if EFSA concluded that additional information is required to assess the safety of insects in food in full, considerable experience has been gained already with the application of insects in food. As far as we are aware, no safety issues have been reported regarding these applications. As safety is the bottom line for enforcement, we take the view that enforcement measures without any safety incidents are not justified just like that. This in particularly applies with respect to products containing only a small percentage of insect derived protein. On the other hand we know that insect manufacturers are using the transition period until 1 January 2018 to compile a full Novel Food dossier based on the Guidelines that were made available in September this year. Taking into account that the new Novel Foods Regulation also contains a regime for data protection, they justify the investment involved to secure a competitive edge the field of alternative protein.
Insects in feed
Two restrictions currently hinder the growth of the insect sector for feed production. The first is a prohibition of certain types of animal protein in feed, commonly referred to as the ‘feed ban’, and secondly, the restrictions on certain types of feed for the insects.
The feed ban, was introduced as a reaction to the BSE crisis, and is laid down in the TSE Regulation. This ban prohibits the use of animal derived protein to be used in feed for farmed animals, unless an explicit exception is made. Insects could have a great potential in feeding farmed animals such as poultry and pigs and also for use in aquaculture. Currently the possibilities for feeding insects to farmed animals and aquaculture animals are limited. However, the European Commission published a draft amendment to the TSE Regulation to partially uplift the feed ban. The amendment will enable the use of certain insects for the production of Processed Animal Protein (PAP) for the use in aquaculture. Discussions whether the use of PAP could be extended to poultry and pig farming are currently on going.
Food to feed the insects
In addition to the prohibition on the use of insect protein in feed, the materials that can be lawfully used to feed the insects are limited. From a circular economy point of view, the use of manure to rear insects could be attractive. In this way manure could be used to produce feed and the insects could transform the nitrate contained in the manure, that would otherwise contaminate the environment, into valuable nutrients for poultry. However, when rearing insects to produce feed, the insects are considered to be farmed animals (similar to cows or poultry). The Animal By-products Regulation prohibits the use of certain materials in feed for farmed animals, manure being one of them. The ideal situation for the insect rearing industry would be to be able to use all types of other waste stream for rearing insects. This is not possible. Currently only waste streams fit for human consumption and some waste streams of animal origin, such as milk and milk derived products, can be used as feed for insects.
During the Wageningen seminar referred to in the introduction, the overall opinion of both the presenters and participants was that European legislation currently restricts commercial use of insects for both food and feed applications. On the one hand, the new Novel Foods Regulation will bring legal certainty on the Novel Food status of insects, on the other hand it will require FBO’s marketing insect based food products to obtain a Novel Food authorization. However, for feed there is light at the end of the tunnel. We conceive the exception for PAP of certain insects to be fed to aquaculture to be a first step in getting insects on the menu for poultry and other farmed animals as well. As always, we will keep you posted on developments regarding the use of insects in both food and feed.
The author has written this post together with her colleague Floris Kets, who attended the seminar organized by the Insects Centre.
On 24 November last, the Dutch Life Sciences Conference took place in Leiden, the Netherlands. This conference brings together a large number of life sciences professionals from the Netherlands and abroad. One of this year’s sessions was dedicated to cross sector innovations, during which DSM, NutriLeads, i-Optics and Axon Lawyers shared their take on this topic. This post captures the legal presentation made during this session on cross over innovations, focussing on the applicable rules to borderline products. These rules are explained on the basis of landmark ECJ decisions and recent Dutch case law. The slides belonging thereto can be viewed here.
In order to demonstrate that it is not always easy to correctly qualify life sciences products, a few decisions from Dutch Courts and the Advertising Code Committee were discussed (see slides 3 – 7). According to a recent decision of the Dutch Supreme Court in the field of tax law, toothpaste and sun cream were surprisingly qualified as medicinal products. This case had been initiated in 2010 by two drugstores that were unhappy they had to pay the regular VAT rate of 21 % with respect to these products. According to the drugstores, these products qualified as medicinal products, to which a VAT rate of 6 % is applicable. Although their plea had been dismissed in two instances, the Supreme Court agreed with the drugstores that based on the presentation criterion (see below), both products indeed qualified as medicinal products, as they advertised therapeutic or prophylactic effects. With respect to toothpaste, this was due to the natrium fluoride protecting against caries and with respect to sun cream, the UVA and UVB filters were supposed to protect the skin against sunburn.
The case discussed above so far stands in isolation, but here are many cases that have shed light on the distinction between two categories of life sciences products, being food and medicinal products. Below you will find 5 criteria that will help you to apply this distinction. In slides 8 – 12, you will find the applicable legal sources.
- The legal product definitions should be taken as a starting point. Bottom line, medicinal products are products aimed curing, prevention or diagnosis of a disease, whereas food products are products intended to be ingested by humans.
- A distinction is being made between medicinal products by presentation and medicinal products by function. Extensive case law is available for the interpretations of these notions (see below). In case of doubt, the rules relating to medicinal products shall prevail.
- It is prohibited to advertise medicinal products without having a market authorisation. For advertising of food products, it is permitted to use authorised health claims, but it is prohibited to use medical claims.
- Medical claims are communications claiming that the advertised products improve health problems. It is a thin line between non-authorised medical claims and authorised disease risk reduction claims.
- The notion of advertising can be pretty broad. According to the Dutch Advertising Code it comprises any public and/or systematic direct or indirect recommendation of goods, services or views for the benefit of an advertiser, whether or not using third parties.
Medicinal Products by presentation
In the landmark ECJ case Van Bennekom, the presentation criterion to qualify medicinal products was introduced. The case related to a Dutch national, who was caught with large quantities of vitamin preparations for medicinal purposes in pharmaceutical form, however without any required pharmaceutical authorisations. Van Bennekom did not deny the facts, but he alleged that he was not marketing medicinal products, but food products. The ECJ ruled that for the sake of consumer protection, the presentation criterion not only covers products having a genuine therapeutic or medical effect but also those regarding which consumers are entitled to expect they have such effect. In sum, the presentation criterium should be broadly interpreted on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant factors. The concentration level of active ingredients forms only one of those factors.
Medicinal products by function
The ECJ Hecht-Pharma decision is still leading to set the parameters to decide if a product qualifies as a medicinal product by function. Hecht Pharma was marketing in Germany a fermented rice product in the form of capsules presented as being food supplements. Further marketing was prohibited, as the product contained significant levels of monalin k, which is an inhibitor of cholesterol synthesis. The product was considered as a medicinal product by function, for the marketing of which a market authorisation would be required. The ECJ ruled in this case that for the purposes of deciding if a product falls within the definition of medicinal product by function, the national courts must decide on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all characteristics of the product, such as its composition, its pharmacological properties and manner of use, the extent of its distribution, its familiarity to consumers and the risks, which its use may entail. As reported in a recent post, these criteria are still valid.
A recent Dutch decision on a licensing dispute entailed so-called functional foods. Although this notion does not have a legal definition under EU standards, it is usually understood as food having certain medicinal properties. The dispute divided Unilever and Ablynx, who both had obtained a license from the Brussels University (VUB) under certain antibody patents owned by VUB. Unilever’s licensed related to (roughly speaking) food products, whereas Ablynx’ license related to medicinal products. Under its license, Unilever developed so-called functional foods having certain beneficial effects against infections caused by the rotavirus. Ablynx claimed that Unilever had thus operated outside its licensed field and thereby acted unlawfully vis-à-vis Ablynx. The Hague Appeal Court endorsed Ablynx’ claims, on the assumption that Unilever’s license was clearly directed against non-pharmaceutical products. As such, it could target general health benefits (such as lowering cholesterol), but not specific pathogens.
What can you learn from the above? It is important to obtain pre-market clearance for the communication on health products. For this purpose, you can take guidance from the Advertising Code on Health Products (Code aanprijzing gezondheidsproducten), applicable to products having a pharmaceutical form and a health related primary function, however without being medicinal products. You could also request pre-market clearance from KOAG-KAG, whom actively evaluates claims on health products and provide endorsements. If and when you are confronted with enforcement measures by either the Dutch Health Care Inspectorate (Inspectie Gezondheidszorg or IGZ) or the Dutch Food Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel en Waren Autoriteit or NVWA), first try to buy some time by claiming an extension for response. Subsequently, carefully consider if the claims made by the enforcement authorities are factually correct and legally enforceable. Whenever helpful or necessary, obtain professional support.
As observed in an earlier post, the boundaries between food products and medicinal products are sometimes blurred. However, the qualification of a product as either one or the other may have huge regulatory consequences. In recent litigation in several Dutch Courts the Hecht-Pharma decision from the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) was applied. This series of cases is of interest for food business operators, as it provides a clear message regarding enforcement measures directed against borderline products. The national health authorities should strike a fair balance between the free movement of goods and the optimal protection of public health. Whereas enforcement policies re. borderline products constituting a threat to public health may be justified, this does not entail that each and every food product containing a substance with a physiological effect automatically qualifies as a medicinal product by function.
The facts of the case Hecht-Pharma related to a food supplement with fermented rice that Hecht-Pharma had been marketing in Germany under the name “Red Rice”. The recommendations for use read “as food supplement, 1 capsule, 1 – 3 times a day”. The German authorities had qualified this product as a medicinal product by function, but Hecht-Pharma did not agree. It argued that having regard to the recommended dose, the product at stake could not exert a pharmacological action.
Medicinal product by function
In its request for a preliminary ruling, the Federal Administrative Court aimed to clarify if, after a change of the Medicinal Products Directive, criteria previously developed to establish if a product qualified as a medicinal product by function, still applied. Qualification as a product as a medicinal product by function implies that it is aimed at a change in physiological functions by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action. The ECJ confirmed in its Hecht-Pharma decision that previously developed criteria were still in place. As a result, the national authorities must decide on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all the characteristics of the product at stake, in particular its composition and pharmacological properties, the manner in which it is used, the extent of its distribution, its familiarity to consumers and the risks which its use may entail when they decide if a product qualifies as a medicinal product by function. Clearly, a product cannot be regarded as such, when it is incapable of appreciably restoring, correcting or modifying physiological functions in human beings.
The Dutch Court cases related to melatonin-based products, marketed by a number of companies represented by the Dutch foods supplements association NPN (Natuur- en Gezondheidsproducten Nederland). During the period between 2011 and 2014, The Dutch Health Inspectorate (IGZ) and the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) on the one hand and NPN on the other hand, corresponded on the topic of melatonin-based products. The Dutch authorities thereby took the view that they considered products containing 0,3 mg melatonin or more to be a medicinal product by function. They based their view on literature studies, from which it would follow that a single oral dose of 0,3 mg melatonin produced a pharmacological effect on humans. In view of their public role of safeguarding public health, the authorities intended to launch enforcement measures regarding products containing more than 0,3 mg melatonin, unless the manufacturer at stake had applied for an authorization to market these products as medicinal products.
Enforcement measures and subsequent summary proceedings
Early 2015, IGZ sent a letter to all Dutch manufacturers of melatonin-based products informing that they would require a market authorization for continued marketing of products containing 0.3 mg melatonin or more. Each such manufacturer should inform the authorities prior to 15 March 2015 for which melatonin-based products it would or it had already applied for such authorization, failing which enforcement measures could follow. NGN subsequently initiated summary relief proceedings, claiming inter alia that IGZ should refrain from enforcement measures, unless it had demonstrated with respect to each and every melatonin-based product that it qualified as a medicinal product according to applicable legal criteria as validated in case law. In these proceedings, NPN claimed that IGZ had not sufficiently demonstrated, based on scientific evidence, that products containing 0,3 mg melatonin or more could change physiological functions in the human body, for instance by a pharmacological effect. Furthermore NGN argued that IGZ had neglected to apply the criteria developed in Hecht-Pharma, according to which IGZ should have established with respect to each melatonin-based product that it qualified as a medicinal product, thereby taking into account all relevant circumstances. According to NPN, these products were food supplements, not medicinal products.
Evaluation by the Court in summary proceedings
Based on a very broad interpretation of the definition of medicinal product, as contained in article 1.2 of the Medicinal Products Directive, NGN’s claim was dismissed. According to the Court, assessment of each individual product could be done by the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board or by EMA, upon filing of an application for marketing authorization. It was not necessary for IGZ to proceed to this evaluation at an earlier stage, as the chances that any deviations from the general conclusion would be found, were considered very small. The Court did consider however that IGZ’s communication and application of enforcement measures had not been unambiguous. Even if the manufacturers of the melatonin-based products followed the request to indicate by 15 March 2015 for which products they filed an application for marketing authorization, it would not be clear by when they would know if IGZ – pending such application – would refrain from enforcement measures. This created uncertainty in the market and was considered unlawful vis-à-vis NGN. The Court therefore ordered IGZ to set a term after 15 March 2015 during which the products for which a market authorization had been requested would be tolerated.
Decision reversed on appeal in summary proceedings
On appeal, the discussion was focused on the correct application of Hecht-Pharma. Contrary to the Court in first instance, the Appeal Court held that a public health authority announcing enforcement measures should at that very moment motivate why a product containing > 0,3 mg melatonin qualifies as a medicinal product. A different approach could create unjust market restrictions, for instance regarding products that upon application were not considered medicinal products. Moreover, the requirement to file a market authorization for each and any melatonin-based product containing > 0,3 mg melatonin is not just a formality, but would oblige manufacturers of this type of products to make an important investment in time and resources. Taking into account there were no acute health issues for the continued marketing of melatonin-based products, at least not for those containing a maximum up to 5 mg melatonin, the Appeal Court ordered that public health authorities should apply all criteria developed in Hecht-Pharma when considering enforcement measures against borderline products.
Confirmation in proceedings on the merits
This summer, the District Court of The Hague confirmed in a decision on the merits the appeal decision in summary proceedings discussed above. In short, this Court held that the unconditional qualification of a group of products as medicinal products, without any individual evaluation taking place, was not in line with EU case law. The Court in particular referred to paragraph 68 of the conclusion of the Advocate General. The Advocate General stated, inter alia, that the insidious extension of the scope of the Medicinal Product Directive by including products that do not belong there, would harm the free movement of goods. Therefore, until an individual assessment of a borderline product based on the Hecht-Pharma criteria has taken place, the public health authorities are not allowed to take any enforcement measures. No appeal was filed by IGZ against the present decision of The Hague District Court, but we were informed that where necessary, IGZ will proceed to enforcement in individual cases.
If and when your company receives a warning letter from IGZ announcing enforcement measures because of its borderline status, please bear in mind the following. Before considering any change in the product like the lowering of its active substance or even its withdrawal from the market, the public authorities should have unconditionally qualified the product at stake as a medicinal product. If and when this situation is not clear, make sure to obtain professional advice to properly deal with the health authorities.
Algae are in the spotlight as a sustainable source of protein, fibres and fatty acids. A form of sustainability is found in organic production. Besides sustainable, consumers perceive organic products as healthy and safe. Therefore producers of microalgae would like to use the organic logo. We previously reported on this topic in an earlier post this year. This post reports what is new in the regulatory framework. It furthermore elaborates on the legal and practical obstacles that algae producers currently encounter with respect to the use of the organic logo, as regulated here, and it explores potential solutions.
Various species of algae
The term “algae” covers both macro- and microalgae. Macroalgae – popularly called seaweed – can be seen with the naked eye. Examples include nori (sushi sheets), sea lettuce and kelp. Microalgae are single-celled organisms up to 50 micrometres in size, and thus not or hardly visible to the naked eye. There are many different species of microalgae, of which Chlorella and Spirulina are the best known. Both species have a history of safe use as application in food for human consumption. This means that the Novel Food legislation does not preclude the use of these algae in foodstuffs.
For a general description of the content of the EU Organic Regulation, we refer to our previous post. In essence, it comprises an overall system from farm to fork for the production of foodstuffs including micro and macroalgae. Furthermore, it provides for the possibility that so-called compliant products imported into the EU from recognized countries may be marketed as organic when certain conditions are met. The bottleneck so far was that the EU Organic Regulation did not provide for specific rules for the production of microalgae. This situation was partly remedied by the so-called Interpretative Note that the Commission published in July 2015. This document accepted the application of private standards recognized or accepted by the Member States, provided that they did not impose additional measures upon products originating from other Member States. Furthermore, it was established that until the moment that detailed production rules for micro algae would be determined, the production of microalgae must comply with the rules applicable to the production of either plants or seaweed. As a consequence, there was no consensus about the exact production standards for organic labelling of microalgae produced in Europe. At the same time it was – and is – possible for organically produced microalgae in third countries to be imported as such in the EU. Because of this situation European microalgae products are one-nil down.
In April this year, the Commission adopted a new Regulation changing the executive provisions of the EU Organic Regulation. In this 2016 Regulation, the Commission stipulates that to date no detailed production rules have been defined for microalgae used as food. Because of this it is still unclear what production rules govern the cultivation of microalgae. Therefore it should be clarified that detailed production rules that apply to the production of seaweed also apply to the production of microalgae for use as foodstuff. This clarification has been obtained by extending the production rules for seaweed applicable to feed, based on an amendment of the executive provisions of the EU Organic Regulation, also to food. The 2016 Regulation will enter into force on May 7, 2017.
Are thus all obstacles removed to organic certification of microalgae produced in the EU? Unfortunately not, because microalgae cannot be compared with seaweed just like that; as seaweed is a macroalgae. Although there are similarities between growing micro and macro algae, the harvest thereof is different. As to the similarities: both macro and micro algae need dissolved minerals and CO2 to grow since they do not break down manure automatically. Therefore, fertilizer and manure derivative products are usually added to the water in order to make the minerals contained in the fertilizers bioavailable to the algae. However, the addition of fertilizer or manure derivative products to an algae culture results into the harmful organisms present therein, such as toxins and heavy metals, to mix with the algae. Products made from algae to which manure or manure derivatives solutions are added, may therefore constitute a very high food safety risk. As to the differences between macro and micro algae: in the harvest of seaweed only the macro algae are harvested. The organisms and bacteria present in the water remain there and the product can be cleaned from harmful substances. However, this is not possible with the harvest of microalgae because of their small diameter. As a result, the bacteria, fungi and other organisms present in the culture are harvested as well and partly end up in the final product. The food safety of such products is questionable.
Risks of open cultivation systems
The vast majority of micro-algae are being cultivated in open ponds. These systems are afflicted by external influences. For that reason, a pond is continuously contaminated with undefined organisms such as bacteria, fungi, aquatic insects, toxins and even faeces. A method to inhibit this unwanted growth is the use of high concentrations of iodine. Algae products from such systems often contain very high concentrations of iodine and they therefore constitute a potential health risk. Nevertheless, third countries other than recognized countries do certify these products as being organic. As a matter of fact, they are marketed outside the system of similar products and recognized countries. This forms a troublesome form of competition for micro algae produced in the EU.
Advantages of closed systems
In closed systems, there are hardly any external influences. In these systems, the entire process of cultivation up to and including harvest can be closely monitored. In the unfortunate situation that any contamination occurs, this can promptly be detected and appropriately responded to. This way of cultivation of algae excludes the risk of unwanted organisms in the final product. However, in order to be able to grow algae under these conditions, the minerals required for the start of growth of the algae have to be added in a different way than in the open nature. Production of microalgae in closed systems therefore usually takes place by the addition of dissolved minerals.
Addition of minerals hinders organic certification
In organic production only a limited number of permitted minerals can be used. When an algae producer uses minerals that are not on the list of permitted substances, he cannot certify his products as being organically grown for the time being. From that perspective, it is important to mention that for some minerals, such as nitrogen and phosphate, there are no suitable natural alternatives or sources available. Mineral salts extracted from mines for instance are not considered safe for use in food. Therefore, currently isolated variants, of which the food safety is guaranteed, are used. Even if an algae producer could apply for admission of these minerals on the list, this has a downside. Normally, these minerals form an integral part of a specific production process containing proprietary information that cannot be disclosed by an algae producer just like that. When filing a request for authorization of minerals in organic production, the probability is low that confidential elements of the relevant production processes remain confidential in such an application.
We see two possible solutions to the problems identified above. Firstly, we expect that when the confidentiality of so-called proprietary data in an application for authorization of certain minerals in organic production could be ascertained for a minimum period, this would give a big boost to the organic cultivation of microalgae. Such regimes also exist for dossiers to be filed for the authorization of Novel Foods and of health claims, so this is not uncommon in food law. Secondly, a so-called grace period for substances currently used in closed culture systems could provide a solution. This grace period would need to apply until there is an acceptable functional alternative available for the envisaged substances in terms of quality, quantity and price. In both cases, of course, food safety is paramount. This means that the added minerals should be proven to be food-safe. Application of the proposed solutions would enable EU producers of microalgae the opportunity to use the EU organic logo for food-safe algae products. This would be a win-win for consumers and producers.
This post is based on a Dutch article that was co-written by the Dutch algae manufacturer Nutress, belonging to the Phycom group. It was published in the September 2016 issue of VMT, a Dutch magazine for the food business. The picture was kindly provided by Nutress, who owns the copyright thereof.
In the last post of last year, we reported on the use of health claims for food products directed at weight loss. In essence, the level playing field is pretty limited. The Claims Regulation does not allow using any claims that make reference to the rate or amount of weight loss. Under certain conditions, it is allowed to market a food product stating that its consumption will decrease the sense of hunger or increase the sense of satiety, but that’s about it. Early this summer, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (Reclame Code Commissie, “RCC”) ruled in a case relating to weight loss, but considered the claims made therein were not inappropriate. What was the background of this case and what type of product was involved? All those who are interested in advertising products targeting weight loss, keep on reading.
Self-regulation of Marketing Food Products in the Netherlands
The RCC is a self-regulatory body of the Dutch Advertising Code Authority, ruling on complaints that can be lodged by both companies and individuals. Rulings are made based on the Dutch Advertising Code and a number of satellite codes, such as The Advertising Code for Food Products and the Code for Advertising directed at Children and Young People. The RCC also bases its Rulings on the advertising provisions contained in the Dutch Civil Code, as well as on particular provisions from the Claims Regulation and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation. Although the RCC Rulings are not legally binding, there is a high degree of compliance (about 96%). This is explained by the fact that the Dutch Advertising Code Authority has been put in place by joint decision of the Dutch advertising companies, whom make a yearly contribution for its operation in proportion to their marketing budget.
Clearance and monitoring services
Clearing and monitoring services regarding the advertising of products based on various self-regulatory codes used by the RCC are offered by Inspection Board Health Products (Keuringsraad “KOAG/KAG”). The products targeted by KOAG/KAG are pharmaceuticals, medical devices and health products. The latter are described as products presented in a pharmaceutical form or claiming a health related primary function without qualifying as a pharmaceutical. Those are what we typically call borderline products. Hiring the clearance services of KOAG/KAG for the advertising of one of the products within its remit has certain advantages, as KOAG/KAG has the informal arrangement with the Dutch Food Authority that approved commercials shall not be subject to enforcement actions.
Facts of the XL-S Medical Case
The case in which the RCC ruled this summer, related to the product XL-S Medical marketed by Omega Pharma. The product is marketed in pills and promotes the formula of a healthy diet, enough exercise and using XL-S Medical. In the TV commercial subject to complaint, the famous Dutch singer René Froger arrives on his bike with a basket plenty of fruits and vegetables hanging from its steering wheel. Two ladies along the road enthousiastically greet him and ask “Hey René, what’s the score?” Before the singer replies to the ladies, one sees him attach to the wall a paper stating: “interim score: minus 8 kilo”. And the singer to confirm to the ladies, “Oh yes, I already lost 8 kilos, I feel great!” Finally a voice-over states: “Follow René and also lose 8 kilos. Before using this medical device, read the instructions.”
According to the plaintiff, it is prohibited to make this type of claims for this type of product. In order to substantiate the complaint, reference is made to particular information displayed at the website of the Dutch Food Safety Authority translating the prohibition laid down in article 12 (b) of the Claims Regulation. More concretely, according to this information it is prohibited to state that the consumption of a particular food product will result in the loss of X kilo’s in Y weeks. Also, it is not permitted to show testimonials “before” and “after” the use of a particular food product. The rationale is that the extent to which weight loss is achieved not only depends from the use of a particular food product, but also on what more the consumer at stake will eat and on how much exercise he/she gets.
In defence, Omega Pharma states that XL-S Medical is not a food product, but a medical device. In fact, this is a class IIb medical device market under CE-number CE0197. It is recommended that this product is taken in addition to regular food and it contains ingredients that lower the appetite and calorie uptake from food. Such product is not subject to the rules applicable on advertising food products, but to the Advertising Code Medical Devices. According to this code, it is not allowed to claim that the consumption of a particular product shall result in the loss of a certain amount of weight in a certain amount of time. It is allowed however to state the actual weight loss as a result of its use. Moreover, the singer René Froger indeed lost 8 kilos, by doing a lot of exercise, having a healthy diet and using XL-S Medical. As the commercial does not state a specific time frame during which this was achieved, the commercial is in line with article 7.2 of the Advertising Code for Medical Devices. The defence presented by Omega Pharma was endorsed by the RCC. Moreover, this commercial obtained pre-market clearance from KOAG/KAG.
This Ruling shows that depending on the qualification of a product, different rules may be applicable on the marketing thereof. The decisive factor in order to decide whether a product qualifies as a food product or a medical device, is it actual activity. Most slimming products, based on their physiological or nutritional activity, qualify as food supplements and are subject to the Claims Regulation. The product at stake however had a particular physical activity and as a result, it qualified as a medical device. On the one hand, this entails more preparatory actions before marketing, such as assessment by a notified body when a class IIb device is involved, like the in the present case. On the other hand, this qualification may offer advantages in the marketing thereof. It is therefore of the essence to begin with the end in mind when marketing borderline products: know what type of product is at stake and what is the applicable regulatory framework. Also, consider using pre-launch clearing services as described herein.
Shock and awe: they did it! A few days after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, many sectors are investigating the consequences thereof for the services and products concerned. The more a sector has been regulated at an EU level, the more severe those consequences tend to be.
EU landscape of food law
If any sector has been highly regulated at an EU level, it is the food sector. The BSE crisis in the ’90-ies gave rise to the General Food Law Regulation in 2002, which has been the basis for a considerable corpus of rules relevant for the nutraceutical sector. These rules include the Food Supplements Directive (2002) as well as the Regulation on Fortified Foods and the Claims Regulation (both from 2006), as well as the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (2011) and the Regulation on Foods for Special Groups (2013) to name just a few.
What is going to happen next?
Although it is difficult to imagine that years of laws and case law can be cast by a vote, strictly speaking the European Regulations will cease to apply in the United Kingdom once it no longer forms a part of the EU. Also, there will no longer be an imperative to implement European Directives into English national law. Access for European nutraceuticals to the UK market and access for English nutraceuticals on the EU market will therefore depend on the instruments replacing the common European framework.
What are the options?
Firstly, the UK could reach and agreement similar to the one that the EU has with Norway or Iceland. In that case, the impact in the field of nutraceuticals would be fairly limited; the UK forming part of the European Economic Area and to a large extent be bound by EU legislation. Secondly, if the relationship would be shaped after the one between the EU and Switzerland, the implications could be more important, as EU food law would not be of general application in the UK. Thirdly, the gap between the current and future situation would be even greater if the relationship will be similar to the one that the EU has with the USA under the WTO, as for each specific sector specific agreements would need to be negotiated.
The trigger and the transition period
In order to move to the next stage, the UK will have to inform the Council of its decision to withdraw from the European Union, based on the famous article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So far, the UK seems to be divided on the question when this process has to be initiated. Some (Europeans) speculate that it may not be initiated at all. However, once the Council has received notice from the UK, an agreement setting out the arrangements for withdrawal should be negotiated within two years. During this transition period, the EU regulatory framework for nutraceuticals shall – in principle – remain in force. However, it can be expected that food business operators shall anticipate on the shift in the regulatory landscape. The UK may become less attractive to trade nutraceuticals due to the uncertainly what will be the applicable rules there.
Open ends… or not?
Based on the EU regulatory framework, nutraceuticals generally do not require prior market approval. This implies that English nutraceuticals could in principle still be marketed in the EU after the Brexit becoming effective. However, any English nutraceuticals marketed in the European Union will have to meet the EU requirements regarding the type of vitamins and minerals that may or may not be used in food supplements and fortified foods respectively. Furthermore, English nutraceuticals to be marketed in Europe may only use those nutrition and health claims that have been authorized at an EU level and that bear information on ingredients and nutrition facts in line with the Food Information to Consumers Regulation. The other way round is much less clear, meaning that it will remain an open question for quite some time with what rules European nutraceuticals to be marketed in the UK will have to comply . This will depend on the rules applicable to nutraceuticals in the UK replacing the EU regulatory framework. Summarizing it seems that trading UK nutraceuticals in the EU will not become “easier” from a UK perspective, whereas marketing European nutraceuticals in the UK will become less attractive because of the regulatory flaw.
Homework on IP licenses
For those food business operators distributing nutraceuticals under license in the licensed territory of the European Union, it is mandatory to clarify whether or not that territory still includes the EU after a Brexit becoming effective. This will not only depend on the wording of the agreement but also on the trademark backing the license. If this is for instance an EU trademark (former Community Trademark), this will no longer be valid in the UK in future. Moreover, if the validity of this EU mark was mainly based on genuine use in the UK, the validity of the entire trademark could be at stake because such use would no longer be of relevance for the continued existence of the mark.
The majority of the British people do not seem to have done a favor to the nutraceuticals industry, to put it mildly. In order for English nutraceuticals to access the EU market, these products will have to meet the EU standards anyway. For European nutraceuticals to be marketed on the Brittish market however, it cannot yet be predicted to what rules they need to comply. It does not seem to be realistic that the UK will opt for the Norwegian model, as it deliberatly moved away from the EU and – presumably – from the EU regulatory framework. It is also hard to conceive that the UK, being such an important trade partner of the EU will put in the same position as the US under the WTO. Remains the Swiss model as a most likely option for the trade agreements to be negotiated between the EU and the UK, but the Swiss model currently also implies the free movement of persons, which is an issue for the UK. So this is not an easy one. Keep you posted.
Photo by Tolga Akmen/LNP/REX/Shutterstock (5738024r) Pro-EU campaigners protest against Britain leaving the European Union in Trafalgar Square – London Stays anti-Brexit demonstration, Trafalgar Square, London, UK – 28 Jun 2016. The referendum was won by the leave campaign and caused Prime Minister David Cameron to resign on 23 June 2016.
Botanicals are preparations made from plants, algae or fungi that are applied for uses in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food supplements. These products have become widely available in the EU and can be bought OTC in pharmacies, supermarkets, drug stores and via the Internet. As to foods supplements, typically these products are labelled as “natural foods” and they come along with various claims regarding potential health benefits. The authorization of health claims for botanicals is still pending in the EU, meaning that they have been neither authorized nor rejected. A recent case from the appeal body of the Dutch Advertising Code Committee perfectly demonstrates the room for manoeuvre for this type of claims.
Green coffee extract
The Dutch online store www.vitaminesperpost.nl offered for sale the product “Green Coffee Plus Extra Strong”, consisting of a green coffee extract, to which was added an extract from green tea and artichoke. The product was a food supplement advertised as being a powerful formula for fat burning, based on its high contents of chlorogenic acid. The Dutch Advertising Code Committee received a complaint regarding this product, as its allegedly beneficial properties could not be substantiated. Complainant had consulted the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database regarding all 3 ingredients, but did not find any support for the claim regarding fat burning. Complainant considered the claim misleading and therefore unfair.
Authorized use of “claims on hold”
The Dutch branch organization for marketing health products (KOAG/KAG) currently permits the use of health claims for botanicals under certain conditions. The advertiser should be able to produce the EFSA ID number under which the claim is on hold, as well as the conditions of use and the recommended quantity per day of the ingredient at stake. Furthermore, when the use of such claim is disputed, the advertiser using it should be able to substantiate it. In the case at hand, the FBO selling Green Coffee Plus Extra Strong deduced from EFSA’s on hold claims database that it was permitted to associate at least green tea and artichoke with weight control and / or digestion.
Substantiation of claims made
In first instance, the Advertising Code Committee recognized the claim “stimulates fat burning” as a health claim, whereas it was not immediately obvious to which of the three ingredients this claim was linked. Due to the applicable transition regime with respect to the “on hold” claims for botanicals, it did not consider this claim to be in violation of the Health Claim Regulation. The Dutch Advertising Code Committee insisted however that the advertiser of the product Green Coffee Extra Strong substantiates its claim regarding fat burning. The plausibility of the claim made does not automatically follow from the fact that certain ingredients are placed on EFSA’s on hold database. As the advertiser did not succeed to provide the required evidence, his advertisement was considered incorrect. On the basis of this incorrect information, consumers might be inclined to buy the product, which is why the advertising was also considered misleading and therefore unfair.
From green coffee to green tea
On appeal, it became clear that the advertiser was aware that it was not allowed to make any health claims for green coffee. It had therefore added to its product a green tea extract for the minimum conditions of use to obtain the claimed effect. The advertiser clarified that the claim for fat burning was specifically linked to green tea. The Appeal body established that for green tea, a number of claims were on hold in connection with “weight management” and “fat metabolism”. It furthermore established that for such claims to be lawfully used under the transition regime captured by article 28.5 of the Health Claims Regulation, the following conditions should be met:
- the claims should not be misleading (article 3 Claims Regulation);
- the claims must be based on generally accepted scientific evidence (article 6 Claims Regulation); and
- the claims should be in compliance with national legislation.
Anticipating authorization procedure
When an advertiser uses an “on hold” claim and without reservation claims a particular effect, it in fact anticipates the outcome of the authorization procedure pertaining thereto. In such situations, said advertiser should be able to substantiate the claim when disputed. The rationale thereof is that the Health Claims Regulation aims to maintain a high level of consumer protection (article 1 Health Claims Regulation) and in general advertisers should be able to substantiate their claims (article 17 Health Claims Regulation). Once again, it was established that the advertiser was not able to do so and therefore its use of the claim regarding fat burning was considered misleading. The fact that he was also using the disclaimer that Green Coffee Extra Strong was not a miracle product and that it should be used as in support of a healthy diet and sufficient physical exercise, could not change this conclusion.
Negative EFSA opinion
Moreover, it appeared that EFSA had published a negative opinion stating that there was no relationship of cause and effect between the consumption of green tea and green coffee and fat burning. Basically, this was the end of the story, as EFSA had declared that substantiation of claim with respect to fat burning in relation to green coffee and/or green tea could simply not be delivered.
Under the current regulatory framework, it is not allowed to use health claims for botanicals, provided that the conditional character of such claims is clearly communicated. Before using any such claim, it is furthermore recommended to check if it is not covered by a negative EFSA opinion. Finally, when the claim made is being disputed, the advertiser should be able to substantiate it.
Some food supplements claim to help the consumer to lose weight and achieve the ideal bodyweight by consuming the product. Sounds too good to be true? Then this post is of interest for you. Following a request from the European Commission, the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA Panel) was asked to provide a scientific opinion on the conditions of use for health claims related to meal replacements for weight control. In fact, the NDA Panel previously evaluated the conditions of use for these types of claims in 2010. We take this re-evaluation as an opportunity to report on the legal framework for weight loss claims regarding foodstuffs.
Relevant legal framework
The relevant legal framework is constituted by both the Health Claim Regulation and the Energy Restricted Diets Directive. Article 12 of the Health Claim Regulation prohibits the use of claims making reference to the rate or amount of weight loss. According to article 13 of the Health Claim Regulation however, it is permitted to use health claims describing slimming or weight control or a reduction in the sense of hunger. It is also permitted to use claims describing an increase in the sense of satiety or the reduction of the available energy from the diet. For these claims to be allowed, they should be in line with the requirements of the Energy Restricted Diets Directive (containing both compositional and labeling requirements) and they should be included in the Community list of permitted claims. Furthermore, these claims should be based on generally accepted evidence and they should be well understood by the average consumer.
Various claims allowed regarding normal metabolism
The consumer could be helped in achieving weight reduction by consuming products that replace some of the daily need for energy or that reduce the craving for more food. In fact, maintaining a healthy metabolism (of either lipids or carbohydrates) could result in weight loss on the long term. There are quite a few authorized claims relating to a normal metabolism. For instance, the claim “Zinc contributes to normal carbohydrate metabolism” can be used if the product to which it relates contains zinc in a quantity of 1,5 mg/100 g or 0,75 ml/100 ml. Furthermore, the claim “Calcium contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism” is allowed if it relates to a product contains at least 120 mg/100 g calcium or 60 ml/100 ml Calcium. As a final example, the claim “Choline contributes to normal lipid metabolism” can be used if the food product at stake contains at least 82,5 mg of choline per 100 g or 100 ml or per single portion of food.
One single authorized claim regarding weight loss
Until now only one single claim with respect to weight loss has been authorized. The claim reads “Glucomannan in the context of an energy restricted diet contributes to weight loss”. Glucomannan is extracted from a plant called “konjac”, having very diverse nicknames, such as devil’s tongue or snake palm. The claim regarding Glucomannan is targeted at overweight adults and may be used only for food products that contain 1 g of glucomannan per quantified portion. Furthermore, the consumers should be informed that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 3 g of glucomannan in three doses of 1 g each, together with 1-2 glasses of water, before meals and in the context of an energy-restricted diet.
Two authorized claims for meal replacement
Next to the Glucomannan-claim, there are two claims available for foodstuffs replacing one respectively two meals a day. Both claims are identical and read “Meal replacement for weight control”. Where nutrition and health claims in general are linked to particular nutrients, this claim however is not. In order to achieve the claimed effect, one meal respectively two meals should be substituted with meal replacements daily. Furthermore, foodstuffs bearing this claim should comply with specifications laid down in Energy Restricted Diets Directive. This Directive sets minimum and maximum limits for nutritional values of foodstuffs that are consumed as a replacement for one or two meals a day. Furthermore, this Directive prescribes the content of replacement products, in terms of energy, proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. The foods under the Energy Restricted Diets Directive are not to be confused with so-called medical foods. These foodstuffs also regulated in terms of content and labeling and they are also used to replace meals, however only upon prescription and not for the purposes of weight loss.
Re-evaluation of the weight loss claim
The reason for the re-evaluation of the claims regarding meal replacements for weight control is a bit of a technical story. We will try to do our best to explain this in clear and understandable terms. As of 20 July 2016, the Energy Restricted Diets Directive will be repealed by a new Functional Foods Regulation providing a common framework for all types of functional foods: infants foods, medical foods and total diet replacement for weight control. As a consequence, the Annex to the Energy Restricted Diets Directive containing detailed guidance on the composition of foods for energy restricted diets will no longer apply Instead, guidance will have to be taken from the applicable Annex to the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (Annex XIII, Part A to be exact) introducing the Nutrient Reference Values’ for vitamins and minerals. This will cause some changes (increases or decreases) in the micronutrient content of meal replacements to occur.
Task of the NDA Panel
Under both the current and the future legal framework for meal replacements, the foodstuff has to contain specified quantities of certain vitamins and minerals to make sure that even when replacing meals as a whole, the consumer does not suffer a vitamin/mineral deficiency. Normally, the consumer is expected to loose weight on the basis that the replacement meal has a controlled energy content and a relatively high protein/low fat content. The NDA Panel was asked to give its scientific opinion about the substantiation of the health claim related to meal replacements under the new Functional Foods Regulation. The NDA Panel considered that the difference in micronutrient composition required under this new Regulation in respect to the Energy Restricted Diets Directive did not affect the scientific substantiation of said health claim, as previously assessed in 2010. As a consequence, the claim “contributes to weight loss” can still be used, provided of course that the conditions for use are met.
What more is allowed?
With respect to other ingredients and substances than Glucomannan, weight loss or similar claims have been made as well. As examples can be mentioned green tea extract and hyperproteins pasta. EFSA did assess more substances and the related claims and concluded that there was a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate such a claimed effect. Recently the claim; “fat-free yogurt and fermented milks with live yogurt cultures, with added vitamin d, and with no added sugars help to maintain lean body mass (muscle and bone) in the context of an energy-restricted diet” was not approved. In essence, products that carrying the claim, ‘contributes to weight loss’ which do not contain Glucomannan in the prescribed quantities and do not comply with the standards as set in the Energy Restricted Diets Directive, are not allowed on the European market. But with a little education of the consumer, explaining that a normal metabolism is actually at least as important as weight loss, plenty of other claims are available for healthy products. During the festive season, the emphasis may not be on the consumption of healthy products. But on a day-to-day basis, we strive for a healthy intake – or don’t we? That’s the point!
The author is grateful to Floris Kets, intern at Axon Lawyers at the time of drafting this blog.