In a statement, the authority calls on consumers to be vigilant of the ‘opportunistic operators,’ who seek to exploit the current health crisis to sell World Health Organization (WHO)-approved supplements that also ‘prevent viral infections’.
Other claims that manufacturers and distributors are putting forward to sell products include increased vitality, improved sleep, reduced stress, digestion and even weight loss.
The DGCCRF also provide cases, where professionals illegally pose as doctors and prescribe dangerous treatments on the Internet allegedly to cure coronavirus.
“Rogue traders continue to find new ways to exploit consumers' vulnerabilities, circumvent algorithmic checks and set up new websites,” said Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, you need to be aware of this as a consumer – there are no miracle online cures.
“I am grateful that national consumer authorities remain on high alert and are working together with the Commission to protect consumers online.”
Coordinated clamp down
Reynders’ comments were in response to coordinated action set up by the European Commission in March to clamp down on unscrupulous French and foreign traders, whose online operations used these claims to sell supplements.
The initiative, which involved the consumer protection authorities of 27 countries, including the DGCCRF found that out of the 268 websites investigated 206 were flagged for potential breaches of EU consumer law.
Of these websites, which sold protective masks and caps, sanitising gels, testing kits as well as food, food supplements and non-food products, 88 contained products claiming to heal or prevent effects against the coronavirus.
Further findings revealed that 30 websites contained inaccurate claims on the scarcity of products and 24 websites were suspected of unfair practices to obtain excessive prices.
“The major online platforms have positively replied to the European Commission's call to address scams and misleading offers and have shown a clear commitment to remove harmful content,” added Reynders.
The DGCCRF emphasises that products promising cures for serious illness or prevention of symptoms are considered misleading under the Consumer Code, and those found guilty are risking imprisonment for a maximum of 2 years and/or a fine of €300,000.
According to Synadiet (national union of food supplements), in 2018 the food supplements market represented nearly €2bn with more than half of sales made in pharmacies. Other distribution channels include distance selling, via direct mail, and e-commerce.
In July 2020, the union released results of its latest survey that revealed a shift in attitude to health, wellbeing and supplement use, triggered in part by the ongoing health crisis.
Its survey found 82% of just over 2000 French people surveyed said they had changed their habits in the last 12 months in order to maintain their health and that of their loved ones.
The effects of coronavirus also caused 62% of this sample to pay more attention to their health with the majority putting in place a series of actions to support their immune system in response.
These actions include better nutrition (53%), better hygiene (53%), consumption of food supplements and natural health products (36%).
“Health is a precious commodity, the imperative to maintain it is increasingly felt in the population,” says phytotherapist Dr Michel Tourrasse.
“The health crisis has led many of us to take to step back, to review our priorities and to question ourselves in particular on our impact on the planet and on our personal care. The crisis is a trend accelerator."