As Europe’s probiotics ban fractures, is it time for a global standard?

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Is it time for a global probiotics standard?

Related tags Probiotic Ipa AESAN SEMiPyP

The International Probiotics Association (IPA) has weighed in on Spain’s recent decision to permit probiotic labelling despite an EU ban, saying an international standard could resolve Europe’s increasingly splintered probiotics position.

“The establishment of global requirements would satisfy the triumvirate of authorities, consumers and, industry and will certainly lead to quality products, better consumer satisfaction, and health and well-being,”​ IPA executive director, George Paraskevakos told NutraIngredients. 

Spain’s recent decision​ to use EU mutual recognition principles to allow the term ‘probiotic’ on-product despite an EU ban on probiotics as an unauthorised health claim, has provoked law experts to question how much longer the EU ban can last.

Domino effect?

Barcelona-based EU food law specialist, Silvia Bañares, said the European Commission would have to deal with a situation where three states: Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic were now openly defying the official EU position.

It is really uncertain what could happen next or in the far future,”​ she told us. “Currently there are at least three countries admitting the ‘probiotic’ term; that means other EU member states might deal with the mutual recognition principle as well. Sooner or later this issue must be assessed by EU institutions to achieve a common position.”

Paraskevakos agreed Spain’s probiotic labelling liberation was unlikely to end with Spain.

“In choosing the EU mutual regulation principal as to why they allowed this probiotic labelling, it can and probably will open doors for other EU countries to follow suit,”​ he said. “Can we possibly use the adage dominos waiting to fall? This approach of harmonisation would benefit everyone in Europe.”

The principle of mutual recognition states that a product legally available in one member state should be available in all 27 member states.

Spain’s Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) ​ruled that since the common EU market was awash with products bearing ‘probiotic’ labelling in the online space, in infant formulas and follow-on formulas, and in countries like the Czech Republic and Italy, the market was thus not harmonised.

“…they could not be prevented from being marketed in Spain,” ​ASEAN ruled and should therefore be allowed as long as they were not accompanied by any specific health claim, as none yet have been approved in the EU.

The shift from brick to click

Paraskevakos said the decision was important because it was a major market and recognised the reality of the European market where trade was heavily online and not nation-specific.

“After Italy and France, Spain is the third largest probiotic supplement market, so now two of the top three markets have their own approach when it comes to probiotic guidance and labelling,” ​he said.

“Over and above this we have an e-commerce market taking shape in Europe which reportedly is the fourth largest in the world at €115m and close to 70% of the probiotics landing on European shores have a probiotic label or claim on pack.”

Targeted to regular consumers?

Writing in a recent International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics missive​, Bañares said more user-friendly labelling should be part of any rethink about what constitutes good probiotic marketing.

“…this new situation makes relevant again the challenges that consumers had identified two decades ago:  how to differentiate among the different available probiotic products and make an informed, purposeful purchase.

This unsolved issue should now be addressed. In this context, we advocate for the development of easy-to-use guidelines targeted to regular consumers, not to clinicians or scientists, to provide consumers with the necessary tools to make their choice.”

She said the Spanish Association of Microbiota, Prebiotics and Prebiotics (SEMiPyP) was working on an assessment of specific strains and specific health effects. 

Since 2017, IPA has been pushing for global probiotic guidelines with Codex Alimentarius.

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