Vitamin and mineral levels: moving calmly towards concensus

By Jess Halliday in Brussels

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Vitamin European union

EU stakeholders are moving closer to consensus over the setting of
maximum vitamin and mineral levels for the EU, said speakers at
Friday's EHPM/ERNA conference in Brussels, which unfolded without
major aggravation between participants.

The conference, organised by the two European trade associations, was the first opportunity for stakeholders to air views on the emotive topic since the submission of comments in response to the EC discussion paper in June.

Robert Madelin, director general of DG Sanco, European Commission, laid down the challenge in his opening comments to "adopt an open-minded, open collaboration, not take a 'everyone should agree with me' approach"​.

Although some disagreements remained over issues such as the feasibility of a two-tier system and whether minor adverse effects are acceptable, by-and-large the day progressed without thundering disagreements.

EHPM chairman Peter van Doorn described the process of finding consensus from divergent viewpoints as "more psychological than legal"​.

"It is progress that people are not upset. Before, the discussion would have been more outspoken,"​ he said. "People being silent does not necessarily mean that people agree, but the conference has helped."​ His optimism was echoed by other key participants. Basil Mathioudakis, head of food law, nutrition and lebelling unit, DG Sanco, said the conference "was extremely helpful in putting forward potential solutions for some of the issues.

"The process will be complicated - it is sometimes an emotional one. We've come a long way from when food supplements were not allowed in certain markets, or were considered as medicines."

In his conclusion, Prof Dr Arpad Somoghi, resident advisor to the EU twinning project food safety office at Hungary's ministry for agriculture and rural development, said: "There are a number of issues, but I feel this meeting was less emotional and more balanced - even if there were dramatically opposed viewpoints. I am more satisfied and optimistic than ever before."

However not everyone felt that the calm, measured atmosphere represented some stakeholders' true feelings.

During the afternoon break Chris Whitehouse, managing director of UK lobby group The Whitehouse Consultancy, told that the tone of the meeting was "bland"​.

"No-one is rocking the boat,"​ he said. "There is still everything to play for, but the specialty product sector needs to keep up the pressure."

Although conducted in an orderly manner, the final session brought to light some significant differences of opinion - particularly over the UK's position that a two-tier system would allow member states to keep high dose products on the market, so long as they carry warning labels.

Mathioudakis' comment that "experience has shown that such warnings are not welcome by consumers or manufacturers"​ met with a flurry of differing opinions.

Whitehouse countered:"Warning labels are warmly welcomed by consumers as they could keep products on the market, and they have access to information"​.

But Ric Hobby, chairman of the UK's Council for Responsible Nutritio, came down in Mathioudakis' camp: "The majority of manufacturers do not want to use warnings and consumers are adverse to that"​.

Van Doorn told that the two-tier system "is not the policy of EHPM. We have not proposed it and we will not propose it"​.

He reiterated the EHPM position that the upper levels should be the starting point, and these should not be exceeded.

Closely connected with the issue of high-dose products is whether or not mild adverse effects are acceptable, if they consumer is aware that there may be some consequence of taking a particular product.

One point of view is that many foods can have a minor adverse effect if consumed in excess, so why should vitamins and minerals be any different. As Whitehouse put it, "If I drink too much mineral water I will go to the loo. Quite clearly we are not going to restrict water because it leads to urination."

But Prof Peter Aggett, head of Lancashire University's School of Health and Postgraduate medicine, said that the interactions impairing intestinal absorption or utilisation should be considered.

While the consumer is aware if they have diarrhoea, whereas absorption or utilisation effects are long term, insidious and most consumers wouldn't expect it or monitor it.

Controversy over the setting of vitamin and mineral levels is certainly nothing new. It was one of the main arguments in an unsuccessful legal challenge to the 2002 Supplements Directive in 2005.

Some stakeholders remain unconvinced about the need for maximum levels at all.

Bert Schwitters, from Dutch supplements company INC, told he believes the whole debate is lopsided, since more people experience serious effects from a deficiency of vitamins and minerals than from an excess.

He said that the idea of normal intended use is very important: "No product comes from a blank, faraway planet," he said. "Manufacturers bring products to market for a certain use".

Schwitters believes that there are already enough checks and balances built in to ensure product safety - such as good manufacturing practices and the EC regulation 178/2002, which sets general principles applicable to measures of EU food law, such as the setting of maximum amounts.

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