EC report finds ‘limited’ authority controls governing EU e-commerce supplement sales

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Official controls on supplements sold over the Internet remain ‘limited,’ a European Commission (EC) report concludes, with non-compliance mainly related to labelling and health claim requirements.

The overview report​ highlights the increasing supplement varieties now available online, citing e-commerce as widening choices at competitive prices and the ease of using secure payment options.

However, the report thinks this choice impedes authorities’ enforcement of Food Business Operator’s (FBO) responsibilities made more difficult by as the nonharmonised requirements demanded from different member states (MS).

“The identification of non-registered food business operators with an online presence has proved challenging due to the relatively limited resources assigned to this area,”​ the report said.

“There is also the fact that a considerable number of these operators can easily and rapidly enter and exit the online marketplace without being aware of their responsibilities.

“Adding to this, the presence of online sellers who actively try to avoid official controls by changing their digital identity is an additional hurdle for the competent authorities.”

DG Health and Food Safety operation

The report entitled ‘Official Controls on Internet Sales of Food in EU Member States,’ refers to a fact-finding operation conducted by the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission (DG Health and Food Safety) in 2017.

The operation sought to evaluate specific national legislation governing online sales in Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.  

Other points of assessment included official controls covering food hygiene (temperature requirements, transport, and traceability) as well as labelling, health, and nutritional claims.

In some MS sectoral or branch-specific investigations/campaigns and follow-ups of complaints and alerts or surveys, the report found certain supplement sale sites recorded high numbers of non-compliances.

In the MS visit in 2017, the authorities checked nearly 1,100 websites and found around 740 non-compliant offers.

This refereed to 425 offers of unauthorised novel foods and 315 of food supplements with medicinal claims.

‘Challenging for competent authorities’

“It is relatively easy to set up a website from which to sell food. FBOs subject to registration can quickly begin business without being fully aware of their responsibilities as FBOs,”​ the EC said.

“It is also challenging for competent authorities (CA) to identify and keep track of the activities of such operators. It is even more difficult to identify rogue sellers.

“FBOs who would like to circumvent official controls can easily do so by changing the content of their webpage or re-registering in a marketplace using a different name.”

The report also pointed towards the role Social Media played arguing that its anonymity meant food sellers were not required to provide accurate information about their identity.

In addition, the closed social media groups to which the CAs had no access or limited accessibility had been identified as particularly challenging issues.

Directive 2002/46/EC regarding food supplements do not set requirements for all relevant substances meaning MS can follow different approaches.

The report emphasised that enforcing provisions of national legislation when food supplements sold from a website or platform registered in another MS was not always feasible where that MS took a different approach.

It added that although this was not a pure e-commerce problem it was especially relevant for the sale of such products between the different MS.

‘Remit unclear for authorities’

“In certain cases, the remit of some authorities is unclear when it comes to differentiating between food supplements and medicines for which the online market is already quite developed,”​ the report commented.

“At the same time there are differences between MS in the classification of products as being either medicines or food supplements since there are no specific EU requirements and each MS is allowed to decide how to classify these products within their territory.

“There are instances where some products are authorised as medicinal products in one MS and as food supplements in another.”

In setting out possible actions to be taken or planned by Commission services, the report encouraged MS to build on the findings from 2017 that enhanced cooperation between CAs and increased effectiveness and efficiency of controls.

“The objective was to encourage MS to identify and then control in a coordinated manner websites which offered for sale specific types of products, i.e. food supplements with medicinal claims and certain novel foods which are not authorised in the EU.

“The coordinated control plan was very well received by the MS,” ​the report said adding that “A second coordinated control plan is in the planning phase.”

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