While it's been just two years since it joined officially, preparation for membership started ten years before and as a result much of its food legislation had already been aligned with the EU.
Still, Nemus Lex, one of the Croatian supplement firms selected for the country's first national pavilion at the industry event Vitafoods in Geneva this week, said the membership signalled big changes for the country.
Kemal Kremić, co-director of the company, told us the firm had welcomed the famously strict EU food regulation since it helped Croatia increase its reputation among its ex-yugoslavian neighbours, which he said already saw Croatia as a mark of quality and safety.
Co-director Davor Gračan echoed this thought, adding that often packaging was not translated from Croatian to emphasise this provenance.
Kremić said the main challenge of the change over came with the health claim regulation.
Adapting to changes
Valentina Šimić, senior associate at Croatian Chamber of Economy, which organised the country showcase, said the reality of the regulatory changes had been different to the long term preparation running up to the membership.
She said the main challenge was the idea of constantly moving regulatory goal posts, with new regulation "every day". She cited the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulation, which came into force last December and required complete relabelling.
"Our industry isn't used to new rules, so economic [bodies] have to do some education."
The health claim regulation was another vital area of change, with most products requiring a revamp as a result.
These changes split into two categories: product that removed all mention of health effects and relied instead on traditional consumer associations, for example cranberry extracts for urinary tract infections, or else products with added ingredients that enabled the same claims to be made legally, for example vitamin C and immunity.
Health claim crack down needed
Gračan and Kremić said they had no problem with such strict regulation, but what was needed now was a level playing field to incentivise such efforts. He said some Croatian companies had not made the changes or continued to make wildly inaccurate claims, creating a legal grey area and a kind of "black market".
They were working with the Croatian government to help tackle this.
Asked if membership had opened up Western European opportunities, they said countries like Germany were too dominated by big established brands making market entry very difficult without significant marketing investment.
Gračan said smaller ex-yugoslavian countries like Slovenia where the culture and language were similar were easier to crack.
"We're on the same frequency," he said. The company was not obliged to stick to EU regulation in neighbouring non-EU markets like Bosnia and Serbia but doing so afforded Croatian firms an ever better reputation. Upon entering the EU, Croatia had to break former import-export tax deals with its non-EU neighbours, although fortunately this did not impact the supplement sector.
Botanicals by the bloc
Croatia has been tipped as one of the possible states to join Belgium, Italy and France on its harmonised BELFRIT list of safe botanicals. Asked what he thought of such a possibility, Kremić said a full 28-state solution was preferable. "It should be for the European Union not in three countries, that's the problem. We think the European Union would be much better if it is harmonised completely, not state by state, I don't like this individual [approach]."