Cross sector innovations and legal loopholes

dls-beeldOn 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.

Product qualification

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.

Legal framework

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Functional foods

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.

Take home

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.

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