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.
The organic sector has developed from a niche market to one of the most dynamic sectors of EU agriculture. To recall some numbers provided by the European Commission, the amount of land used for organic farming grows at around 400,000 hectares a year. The organic market in the EU is worth around €27 billion, some 125% more than ten years ago. The EU encourages more farmers into the organic sector and aims to increase consumers’ trust in certified organic products to further boost those numbers. For some background on the regulatory framework, we refer to our earlier blogpost on the Organics Regulation. As already announced in that post, the current Council Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 needs an update as it is based on practices of over 20 years ago. The first proposal for a new EU Regulation on organic production dates back to 2014. Last month, the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development gave green light to the new Organic Regulation. This new regulation aims to guarantee organic production throughout the supply chain by phasing out the many exemptions that are allowed under the current Regulation, such as the use of non-organic seeds as further covered below. In other words, the new regulation shifts from an à la carte system of exceptions to a set menu of harmonized rules. This contribution sets out the most important changes by answering relevant questions in the light of the new Organic Regulation.
Which products are covered under the new Organic Regulation?
Similar to the current Organic Regulation, the new Organic Regulation applies to live and unprocessed agricultural products, including seeds and other plant reproductive material and processed agricultural products used as food and feed. Processed products can be labelled as organic only if at least 95% by weight of their ingredients of agricultural origin are organic. Unlike the current Organic Regulation, the new Organic Regulation also covers certain other products closely linked to agriculture. Those products are listed in Annex I and include, among others, salt, essential oils, cork, cotton, and wool. Other products may be added in future.
To what extent can non-organic seeds still be used?
Derogations that allow non-organic seeds to be used in organic production will expire in 2035. A couple of measures will be taken to increase the organic seed supply and to help it meet high demands before that time. First of all, Member States shall establish a database of organic plant reproductive material as well as national systems that connect organic farmers with suppliers of organic reproductive material. Secondly, the use non-organic seeds may temporarily remain allowed if the collected data demonstrates insufficient quality and quantity of the organic reproductive material. Also, to meet the demands of organic seeds, organic heterogeneous material is explicitly allowed for in Article 13 of the new Organic Regulation and production criteria for organic varieties are adapted taking into account the specific needs and constraints of organic production. The derogations may be phased out earlier than 2035 or extended based on a report due in 2025, which will examine the situation of plant reproductive material on the market.
Are mixed farms still allowed under the new Organic Regulation?
While the initial proposal of the Commission proposed to ban the production of organic products and conventional products at the same farm, mixed farms continue to exist under the new Organic Regulation. Mixed farms are allowed provided that the two production activities are effectively separated into clearly distinct production units. This means, among others, that inputs for production as well as the final products must be separated to avoid contamination and potential fraud. Also, the two production activities should involve different livestock species and plant varieties.
What measures must be taken to avoid contamination from non-authorized substances?
EU thresholds for conventional products automatically apply to organic ones too. Stricter thresholds for non-authorized substances in organic products are not introduced. This would include high costs, especially for small farmers, to control for example contamination from neighbouring conventional farming. Instead, food business operators are obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid contamination. The responsibility and accountability of organic producers will thus be emphasized. Final products are not allowed to bear the organic label when the contamination was deliberate or caused by irresponsible food business operators that failed to take precautionary measures. Meanwhile, Member States remain at liberty to set specified thresholds for non-authorized substances in organic products, provided that these national rules will not affect the trade of organic products that are legally placed on the market in other Member States. Based on a report due by the end of 2024, anti-contamination rules and national thresholds may be further harmonized in future.
How does the new Organic Regulation ensure the high quality of organic products?
Rather than moving all the control provisions into the regulation on official controls for food and feed, as initially proposed by the Commission, specific rules will apply to the control of organic farming. Organic production refers to the use of production methods that contribute to the protection of the environment, animal welfare, and rural development. Risk-based checks will therefore not be limited to final products but take place along the supply chain to guarantee that organic products are truly organic. Physical on-site checks will take place at least annually; the on-site check may be reduced to once every two years if the food business operator has been fully compliant for three years. In the Netherlands, those inspections are carried out by SKAL as the the designated Control Authority responsible for the inspection and certification of organic companies.
What does the new Organic Regulation mean for products imported into the EU?
Under the current Organic Regulation, organic products produced in third countries are allowed on the EU market when the organic standards of the exporting country are similar to EU rules. This means that organic products are in fact regulated by over 60 different standards. Under the new Organic Regulation, all imported products will have to comply with EU standards. Taking into account the date of application of the new Organic Regulation as well as the transitional period granted for imported products, this rule will only apply as from 2026. Moreover, certain exceptions are introduced to avoid disruptions of supply on the EU market. First of all, the Commission is empowered to grant specific authorization for the use of products and substances in organic production in third countries with specific climatic and local conditions, which therefore cannot comply with the new requirements. This exception also applies to organic production in the EU’s outermost regions, such as the Nordics. Secondly, equivalent production methods in third countries could be recognised under trade agreements.
The new Organic Regulation promises to further boost EU organic production. Measures to increase the supply of organic seeds and animals, allowing mixed farming, and no harmonized thresholds for non-authorized substances aim to attract more farmers into organic production. Meanwhile, measures are taken to increase consumers’ trust in organic products, such as through risk-based checks along the supply chain and the switch from the principle of equivalence to an EU single set of rules for imported products. We expect this to be a major improvement for the algae sector, that suffers unfair competition from Asian countries, where organic standards are not necessarily the same as in the EU.
It takes some more years to see to what extent the Regulation will live up to its promises. While the Regulation itself only becomes applicable from 2021, many rules are subject to further implementation depending on the development of the sector. This illustrates the dynamic character of the organic sector, which creates many opportunities for food business operators active in this field.
Last month, the European alcoholic beverages sectors handed over to the European Commission a self-regulatory proposal on the provision of nutrition information and ingredients listing. Article 16(4) of the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) Regulation exempts alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol from the mandatory list of information and nutrition declaration. Nevertheless, it also attributes the Commission with the task to investigate whether and to what extent alcoholic beverages should nevertheless be covered. Last year, the Commission established in its report, amongst others, that the provision of nutrition information and ingredients listing could help consumers to make informed choices about what and how much to drink. The alcoholic beverages sectors have been asked to present a self-regulatory proposal to respond to consumers’ expectations as they have done last month.
In their proposal, the alcoholic beverages sectors elaborate on the details on the communication of the nutrition information, the list of ingredients, and the means of delivering this information to consumers. The sectors aim to provide consumers with meaningful information while preventing to create new burdens for SMEs. In this blog we give a short overview of the proposal, which should be read together with the sector-specific annexes for beer, cider, spirits and wine that allow for sector-specific implementation of the proposal.
According to the FIC Regulation, nutrition information must be given per value of 100 ml of the product and may additionally be provided per portion size. Nutrition information involves the energy value and the amounts of fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, but may also be limited to the energy value only. The spirit sector emphasizes in its annex that it is most meaningful for consumers to provide the information in portion size and adds that the energy value per 100 ml might be misleading, as spirits are never served in this quantity. To provide accurate nutrition information, food business operators may carry out analysis on their products or they can use generally established and accepted data. The alcohol beverages sectors stress the importance of the latter option due to the changing nature of certain alcoholic beverages as they age (wine) and depending on the harvest (e.g. cider). Moreover, said data will also reduce the burden for analysis by SMEs. The wine and spirits sector have already provided such a toolkit in their annexes to the proposal, using average values of typical and characteristic wines. For instance, 100 ml of brut, sparkling wine provides 70 kcal.
As for the list of ingredients, Article 20 of the FIC Regulation excludes food additives or food enzymes used as processing aids from this list. The wine sector specifies that this means that only additives permitted for wine-making not considered processing aids during the wine-making process shall be included in the list of ingredients. Moreover, the sector notes that natural substances used to adjust the grape composition (acidity and natural sugar content) do not have to be listed; those substances only aim to restore the basic balance and composition where harvest conditions are not optimal. The wine annex is already rather concrete in the sense that it shows in its appendix I a list of oenological compounds that, when used, will have to be included in the list of ingredients.
Lastly, the proposal embraces new information and communication technologies to inform the consumer on the nutrition declaration and list of ingredients. This is in line with recital 51 of the FIC Regulation, according to which food information rules should be able to adapt to, amongst others, a rapidly changing technological environment. Next to traditional on label information, off-label information that can be accessed via a web-link, QR code, bar code or other direct means of using smart technologies are suggested in the proposal. The wine sector refers in its annex for example to the website of ‘Wine in Moderation’ as a tool to comply with labeling requirements by off-label means. The alcoholic beverages sectors propose to leave it up to the food business operators how to display the information.
The alcoholic beverages sectors commit themselves to report on implementation in March 2021. The proposal will now be assessed by the Commission. Green light will allow for high spirits to make information on alcoholic beverages crystal clear. However, all four sectors (beer, cider, spirits and wine) must be working hard on more concrete implementation guidelines that can be used by their member companies, who have to do the actual job. For the time being, the wine and spirits sector so far have elaborated the most concrete proposals. We will continue to monitor and report on further developments in this field.
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.
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.