Italian group fights COVID-19 health claim abuse

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Michail Petrov 96
Michail Petrov 96

Related tags Regulation COVID-19 legislation

Italy’s primary food supplements group is taking action to protect the EU’s biggest and most dynamic market from a surge in misleading coronavirus-linked immunity claims.

Federsalus, a 230-strong group of institutional and commercial organisations operating in the food supplements sector, told NutraIngredients it was “taking very seriously”​ the 200+ infringements logged in the country since the pandemic began and was engaging with its members and the broader Italian food supplements sector, as well as regulators and EU law experts to tackle the problem.

The trade group told members to remove any online or offline marketing that suggested any nutrient or supplement could treat or prevent coronavirus or risk expulsion from Federsalus, not to mention penalties that can run to millions of euros from Italy’s Competition and Market Authority (AGCM).

“We are committed to the fight against these kinds of false claims because Italy has the most important supplements market in Europe – we have to protect it,” ​Federsalus director general Madi Gandolfo said. “In some cases it is companies misinterpreting the health claims law and quickly remedied, in other cases other actions might be required.”

Italy’s €1.6 billion food supplements market dwarfs the next biggest in Europe: Russia at €1.08bn; Germany with €967m and the UK with €755m, according to analyst Statista.

Gandolfo said EHPM member Federsalus had engaged “one of Italy’s and Europe’s best anti-trust lawyers”​ to help bring industry members into compliance with both Federsalus statutes and Italian and EU food law.

Not allied: Immune function support and COVID-19 relief

Agencies like the Istituto dell’Autodisciplina Pubblicitaria (IAP), Italy’s self-governing advertising standards authority, have also been active in taking down offending claims linking nutrients like botanicals and probiotics with COVID-19 relief.

In October IAP ruled​ Italian Supplement maker PromoPharma’s probiotic claim that “Lactoferrin the natural ally against coronavirus”​ was misleading, even though the claim was linked to a “recent scientific study”.

While the ruling may have been quite straight forward given probiotic health claims are not authorised in the EU’s 27 member states anyway, it also highlighted a somewhat ambiguous situation for regulators and industry alike when some governments​ are simultaneously recommending nutrients like vitamin D to bolster immune function in some population groups in response to the pandemic.

But a government public health recommendation is one thing; a commercial health claim that alludes to coronavirus treatment something else altogether; something that could as IAP noted in its PromoPharm ruling, “generate erroneous expectations in the consumer, who undoubtedly in the current situation is more exposed from an emotional point of view and therefore less inclined to exercise an adequate critical filter.”

DG Sante, the EC’s Health and Food Safety Directorate, has been equally unequivocal​, noting that while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved claims for the likes of vitamins C and D and iron to contribute to immune function, none exist for any food or food supplement protecting against viral infection or boosting immunity against any virus​.”

In this climate DG Sante said: Criminals and fraudsters are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a business opportunity. Products claiming to prevent and cure COVID-19 are being marketed illegally and may even pose significant risks to health.”

The German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) said it was cracking down on coronavirus offenders. “It is unheard of how some traders are trying to profit from people's fears in the current pandemic,”​ said BvL president Friedel Cramer. “The authorities are taking decisive action against it."

Around the bloc

As of the beginning of December, DG Sante noted EU member states had taken more than 600 actions against COVID-19 related food supplement marketing transgressions.

Italy had by far the most notifications with 205, followed by Germany (61), the Netherlands (53), France (46) and the Czech Republic (42).

Actions taken by EU states included fines and injunctions but most common were health claims or product offers being removed from websites, e-commerce sites or promotional materials.

Of 622 cases, 534 were national, 85 cross-border while three involved products seized because they presented a health risk. 341 of those cases were still being investigated.

Gandolfo said the size and progressive nature of the Italian market contributed to the large number of marketing infringements there. “In Italy we prosecute them too, more than many other countries. We are taking very seriously this problem.”

Food supplements and fortified foods accounted for 580 of 622 infringements, but other categories making COVID-19 claims included cocoa, coffee and tea (22), herbs and spices (10), honey and royal jelly (4) and fats and oil (4).

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