Public figure profile: Basil Mathioudakis
'EU food regulation is world's best': EC veteran on life after DG SANTE
Somewhat high profile during his 32-year career at the Commission, Mathioudakis secured the game-changing vote from member states to create the Article 13 list of health claims, steered the Food Information for Consumers (FIC) regulation through the European Council and Parliament and worked on the revision of the Foods for Particular Nutritional Uses (PARNUTs) legislation.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Cumbersome, unclear and anti-innovation. It’s no secret that the health claims regulation in particular has attracted considerable criticism from food industry players since its inception in 2006.
Yet Mathioudakis stands by the text, and now heading up his own consultancy firm, he is spreading the word about how food legislation is done in the EU as an advisor to officials in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“The only thing I know is that how good the European legislation is and so that is what I am telling people,” he told us.
“I think the food legislation in the European Union is one of the best if not the best. I explain the merits. Of course it’s not easy to tell people that what is applicable in Europe can be transposed directly in the situation of different countries but you try to explain why this has been done.”
But when recounting the EU story, does he leave out the chapter containing five EU court cases challenging the Commission and its nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR)?
The court cases
“These are the positions that were expressed. After all in many areas like nutritional labelling etc you have to say there has been wide consultation and from the consultation responses available online they can see [the positions taken].
“You have explained there were challenges to the claims regulations - five court cases – and why those cases were brought. If you give the story you have to give the whole story.”
Last year the UK trade group Health Food Manufacturers' Association (HFMA) and the Dutch Gezondheidsproducten Nederland (NPN) lost their attempt to have the NHCR annuled by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
In 2014 a similar attempt from two German lawyers was also rejected by the EU courts.
He said it was a moment of “professional satisfaction” when the Court ruled in favour of the Commission.
“I think that the legislation has the merit that the court recognised and that’s how it was,” he said.
“So it was not frustration, it was a challenge.”
Mathioudakis said it wasn’t all opposition, and many industry players welcomed the claims regulation as a way of creating a science-led competitive landscape.
“Of course there was opposition which is understandable, especially about the dossiers which were costly.
“But when we were explaining that claims would be free for everybody with the rare cases of protection of data, we got a better attitude and I don’t think the whole of the industry was against the claims. I think also now they see more and more the benefits of the health claim field.”
The botanical solution
One key gripe of the nutrition industry with the EU regulation is the impact it has had on the botanical industry.
There are about 2000 botanical health claims on hold, within which 500 received a negative opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
EFSA requires human studies to prove efficacy, but the majority of botanical health claim dossiers rely on 'traditional use' evidence. This kind of evidence is allowed under medicinal laws through a simplified registration procedure.
Yet under current EU rules, it is possible for member states to classify a product as food or as medicine on a case-by-case basis depending on its presentation and claimed effect. This has led to confusion and disparities between countries.
Yet Mathioudakis declined to comment on how he thought the situation should be resolved, saying this was not the role of a consultant.
Last year the botanical issue made the Commission’s list of 2016 priorities under the pillar Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) programme.
“I think the REFIT, the whole process, is a very positive thing. I think it’s very good to challenge the legislation, to keep an eye on it and see if it serves the purpose for what it was set up for.
“So I think that is a good thing overall.”
The EU model
As part of his new consultancy role he is advising Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as they move towards a harmonised regulatory framework for supplements and trade more broadly.
He said these countries were interested in mirroring the EU model, with Mathioudakis invited to training workshops in Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.
This is nothing new, he said, with the EU influencing standards worldwide throughout his time at the Commission.
He gave the example of the Codex Alimentarius, which he called a “battle ground” between Europe, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
A new chapter
In February it was announced that unit deputy head Alexandra Nikolakopoulou would be stepping into the role of head of DG SANTE’s unit for nutrition, food composition and information as Mathioudakis’ replacement.
A lawyer by training, Nikolakopoulou has worked within the Commission for nearly 12 years.