EFSA said the system was meant to help with the safety assessment of botanicals and botanical preparations used in food and food supplements “by facilitating hazard identification” and harmonising methodology.
It first published the website version of the 1100-substance compendium of botanicals reported to contain toxic, addictive, psychotropic or other substances of concern back in April 2009 and updated it in 2012.
Yet a push to make its mass of data more usable has seen the compendium given a new searchable format and it will be expanded to include around 300 non-European botanical species by 2017 when its construction will be complete.
Joris Geelen, partner at Food Compliance International, congratulated EFSA’s “highly skilled” experts for this “great result”.
“EFSA has been doing a great job on the compendium since they first published it, it’s very useful. On top of that now they made it into an interactive database, which broadens the possibilities,” said Geelen, who worked in the past for the Belgian government on the botanical consensus project between Belgium, France and Italy (BELFRIT).
EFSA said the database, which can be seen HERE, was open for additional contributions and comments from users. It would consider the inclusion of algae, cyanobacteria and fungi in the future.
The compendium does not have any regulatory force and does not purport to make any judgment on whether the substances are suitable or not for food applications in Europe and the list may even contain unauthorised novel food ingredients.
Instead it comes as part of EFSA’s effort to harmonise the methodology for assessing the safety of botanicals and botanical preparations used in food – and sits in the broader context of the authority’s ‘Open EFSA’ effort to make its wealth of data more useable.
Interpreting the data
Geelen said the difficulty now would be the interpretation of the data.
“As EFSA also warns that the presence of a substance of concern in a botanical does not necessarily mean that the substance will also be present in a botanical preparation and, if so, at a dosage that could cause a health concern.
“To evaluate the final preparation used for in a food supplement for example, the specifications of the preparation, the conditions of use and combinations of botanical preparations need to be taken into account.”
He said Belgium and Italy had already been taking this “pragmatic” approach, also taking into account ‘traditional’ knowledge.
“Now we need to move further towards a common and pragmatic, nuanced approach for the safety evaluation, adapted for this diverse ingredients.”
He said divergence on the authorisation and prohibition of plants in member states showed there was still much work to be done.
Last month the Czech Republic notified the EU of a draft decree laying out prohibitions and restrictions for substances including an outright ban on 108 plants including yohimbe bark and sea buckthorn.
Imagine all the plants, living for today...
He pointed out one of the goals for the BELFRIT project was to log efficacy as well as safety profiles.
“I hope one day we could start working like this too on the side of efficacy. Imagine such an interactive database for active substances, and the physiological effects.”
However Geelen conceded this efficacy database was currently just a dream given EFSA’s feelings on traditional use as evidence.
There are about 2000 botanical health claims on hold.
EFSA requires human studies to prove efficacy, but the majority of botanical health claim dossiers rely on 'traditional use' evidence, which has meant about 500 of the 2000 claims have received a negative opinion from EFSA.
The European Commission is currently considering different options for the treatment of botanical health claim dossiers.
Geelen said the key to any progress for botanicals would be to ensure a competent next generation of experts, and adequate funding to back them.
“So we will need also support for the study of botanicals, pharmacognosy in universities. We need the next generation of experts with a broad knowledge, to learn from this expertise."