Novel foods regulation came into effect in Europe in 1997, and requires that all foods and food ingredient not commonly eaten in the EU before then must go through a pre-market approvals process that requires considerable evidence on safety.
However this process takes a long time – as long as four years between application and approval, where it is eventually given. Critics have argued that this impeded the competiveness of the European food sector.
The regulation is currently undergoing revision, and proposals have been made to speed up the process for foods and ingredients with a long history of safe use in other parts of the world. A second reading is expected to take place in the European Parliament next year.
The new paper, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Food Policy, draws attention to the growing interest in exotic foods in developed markets – not least because of the discovery of nutritional attributes or other marketable elements such as aesthetic appeal, organic or fair trade origins.
The paper is authored by Michael Hermann of Biodiversity International, a Canada-based research centre supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Amongst the minor edible plant species that Hermann says could be interesting to developed markets, but which are not yet widely traded, are Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), an edible root high in fructas; Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes), a nutrient rich fruit from the Amazon. Both of these require novel foods registration.
Camu camu (Myrtacaeae dubia), meanwhile, has a very high vitamin C content and an interesting flavour but is currently only permitted for food supplements.
Interest in these and other crops, and the premium pricing they could attract, could encourage investment in supply chains, stimulate innovation from tropical biodiversity, bring new income opportunities for poor producing countries, and encourage sustainable land use.
However, the current novel foods laws are causing interference with north-south food chains, says Hermann, who is particularly concerned that the predominance of some two-dozen crops in human nutrition, including rice, maize and wheat, mean investment is being channelled towards making these more inexpensive to produce.
The risk is that minor or heritage crops “will be pushed into mere subsistence uses or even extinction owing to under-use in agricultural systems and markets”.
He is therefore strongly in favour of giving exotic foods eaten in other cultures their own category under novel foods regulation, “with food safety requirements being proportionate to the risks they pose”.
He also argues that activities to develop export supply chains must take account of food safety concerns, and look to generate data that will make them more acceptable in target markets.
Long time for noni and friends
Hermann looks closely at the length of time it took for several exotic fruits to receive novel foods approval. For instance, noni fruit and leaves (Morinda citrifolia) from Polynesia took 37 and 49 months between application and authorisation respectively.
Dried fruit pulp from the African baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) had its application pending for 23 months before being approved in 2008. And Allanbackia (Allanbackia spp), also from Africa, was pending for 46 months before being approved for use in yellow spreads and margarine.
Other applications have been knocked back. Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) was refused approval in 2000 on the grounds of available food safety data – although other markets like the US and Australia are pressing ahead with commercialisation of extracts. An opinion on a new application is expected next year.
Nangai nuts (Canarium spp) firm East Asia and the Pacific, mooted as gourmet nuts, were also refused in 2000 on the grounds that toxicology data were incomplete – even though there is archaeological evidence of use dating back 8000 years.
“The fact that many of the foods challenged by novel foods regulation are legally available for food uses in Canada, Japan, Switzerland and USA suggests that regulations in these countries is less stringent than European novel foods regulation,” wrote Hermann
“There is also a tendency for traders and exporters of re-directing their marketing strategies to these markets preferentially.”
Food Policy (Elsevier) – published online ahead of print
“The impact of the European Novel Food Regualtion on trade and food innovation based on traditional plant foods from developing countries”
Author: Hermann, M.