Trade associations in the UK are taking legal action in an attempt to hold off the EU food supplements directive, which threatens to damage one of the biggest and most diverse natural products markets in Europe.
A number of associations, including the Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA) and the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), have applied to the UK court to review the legality of the directive, passed by the European parliament last year, and due to be enforced on 1 August 2005. The organisations are hoping to see their case referred to the European Court of Justice.
The NAHS and HFMA are also applying for an injunction to stop the directive coming into effect in the UK. In July, the UK government's upper house, the House of Lords, rejected proposals to implement the food supplements directive in the UK. But the vote cannot stall implementation of the directive, and revoking it would breach EC Treaty obligations, resulting in heavy fines for the state.
The lobby group Consumers for Health Choice (CHC), which has made its presence felt since the beginning of the directive and had previous campaign success in the 90s, and nutrition experts the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) have also backed the case but it is unclear how much success the coalition of industry voices could have. The HFMA consists of 165 members while NAHS is much smaller.
The case will, however, point to the value of the supplements business to the UK. The associations claim that the directive will affect 41 per cent of the country's adults who currently buy over £335 million (€482m) worth of vitamins and minerals annually. Aiming to harmonise supplement trade across member states, the directive (2002/46/EC) is likely to restrict the sale of many higher dose nutrients, such as antioxidant vitamins C, B6 and E and essential minerals including selenium and zinc, currently available in the UK but not permitted in many other European nations. This means that consumers wishing to maintain their daily nutrient consumption will be forced to make multiple purchases for their usual intake, paying prices several times their current outlay, claim the trade groups.
More than 5,000 popular vitamin and mineral food supplements will be banned under the new directive, despite being accepted as safe by UK medicines and food regulators. This is mostly due to the positive nutrient list, a source of considerable concern to the British market, as it does not include around 270 ingredients widely used in supplements in the UK. There are only 12 safety dossiers being prepared to allow the missing ingredients to remain on European shelves. Dossiers are estimated to cost up to £200,000 per substance and must be submitted before the end of July 2005.
Ralph Pike, director of NAHS, which is also lobbying to restore the sale of kava, said: "While this directive will be implemented in all EU countries it will be ruinous for the UK. We have a strong and increasing supplements culture and British consumers prefer to buy specialist vitamins and minerals in higher doses than other nations."
Sue Croft, director of CHC, added: "This directive has to be stopped. Nobody would deny that regular intake of nutritional supplements acts as an insurance policy, both as an excellent means of maintaining good health and preventing some diseases. Losing our special products will force thousands of people into the doctor's surgeries, at a time when our health care system is in crisis."
The case may only succeed in delaying enforcement of the directive, but this could gain some valuable time for those wishing to submit safety dossiers.