It said the ban on off-premise sales at the consumer's home or workplace went against EU rules on unfair commercial practices and the principle of an EU single market. A reasoned opinion issued by the Commission asked Austria to ensure its law conformed with EU rules.
The point of contention was that the ban was enforced regardless of whether such traders engaged in misleading, aggressive or otherwise unfair practices. As well as food supplements, the ban covered sales benefiting charities.
A Commission spokesperson told us one possible way out would be to enforce the ban on a case-by-case basis according to the type of product and trading practices in question. This would be based on an EU blacklist of commercial practices banned across the EU in all circumstances under the unfair commercial practices directive.
The list included things like “aggressive doorstep selling”, “professional trader disguised as consumer” or “emotional pressure”. This could include explicitly telling customers the trader’s job or livelihood would be in jeopardy if they did not buy the product. These rules also meant medicines could never be sold off-premise.
Court case coming?
EU infringement procedures follow three stages: Formal notice, reasoned opinion and finally referral to the court.
The formal notice was issued back in September 2013 as part of the Commission’s assessment of infringement in all member states, since which Austria has made some changes like removing cosmetics from the ban.
Yet as the ban on direct selling of food supplements still stands, the country has been given two months to reply to the reasoned opinion.
“In case Austria does not respond within the deadline or provides an unsatisfactory response, the Commission might decide to refer Austria to the [ECJ],” the Commission said in a statement.
Austria’s supplement market was worth €76.9m in 2014, according to Euromonitor International, making it the tenth biggest market in Europe.
The market researcher said Amway, which had a nutrition brand called Nutrilite, was the leading player in direct selling in Austria in 2014.