The industry association hosted an event in Brussels on Friday (November 18th) entitled 'Food Supplements in the EU: Where next?' in which Patrick Coppens, Director Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, provided a summary of the last 20 years of the Food Supplements Directive and discussed some of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.
On a global level, the supplements market is as big as the OTC pharmaceuticals market, Coppens pointed out, so competitiveness is crucial for marketing products outside the EU, as well as within.
Competitivity of the EU industry
However he explained that some governments outside the EU are more supportive of the industry.
“In other regions the size of the supplements market isn’t explained purely by consumer demand. That is something that is driven, in part, by governments that want to be a leader in the area of food supplements because they believe [supplements] should be a part of the tools they have to address the health issues in their nation. So there is active support and active investment in that sector.
“The European Union has to be able to compete with others outside Europe and if we do not stimulate innovation we will not be able to do that.”
He added that over the last 20 years there have been "so many" regulatory efforts to increase the competitiveness of the industry but "we have seen a disconnect with policy".
"For example, EFSA has confirmed vitamin D can help reduce the risk of falls…yet there is no mention whatsoever of vitamin D in the EC’s advice on how to reduce the risk of falls.
“It would be very smart to recognise the full potential of supplements as part of the tools that we have to address the health challenges in society because they do really make a difference.”
“The only thing that is missing is government saying 'if the effect is there then let’s use it'.”
He added that supplements have also been shown to help to increase productivity both at school and in the workplace so the potential economic benefits are clear.
“There is a large body of evidence which comes from different fields to back this up. If you look at undernutrition, which is probably something we are ignoring too much, EFSA has indicated there are insufficient intakes of certain nutrients and If you have an insufficient intake this has an impact on productivity.”
Tight transition periods
He discussed the fact that food safety is non-negotiable in Europe and said that while this is excellent for ensuring consumer trust, it created difficulties when new legislation is drawn up and implemented without time for the industry to respond.
“There is an increasing drive to zero tolerance in terms of risk management… but this creates significant challenges.
"What we see sometimes is there are measures put in place without appropriate transition periods which doesn’t give companies the opportunity to adapt and for food supplements that is crucial because they have a long shelf life of 2-3 years.
“That’s an issue we want to address.”
Responding to a member of the audience who asked how they could help to encourage legislation changes in this respect, Coppens said the only way to do this was to “talk to each other”.
“Often authorities do not know, they do not understand what is needed to change one element in a formulation. They do not understand that has implications for your supply change, that you have to change your specifications, your formulations, adapt your manufacturing process, revise your HACCP plan and redo your labelling. So it’s that complexity that we need to communicate to the authorities.”
He added that the other issue is that member states also need to be convinced of the longer transition periods and that can be where the stumbling block lies.
“It’s about education. The most efficient way sometimes is to have an official visit to your company but unfortunately authorities nowadays are not so willing to do that because of the time resources available. But if they can do that they really see how things work and that is an eye-opener.”
Coppens also discussed the difficulties that come with creating legislation which is harmonised across all European member states.
“Harmonisation is desired but it is not an easy task and it takes time. It’s already an achievement that we have 27 member states applying the Food Supplements Directive but overcoming cultural differences between member states is not always so easy.”
He discussed the challenge of implementing the mutual recognition principle, which states that you should be able to place a product lawfully sold in one member state in other member states.
“We know that unfortunately that is not always so straight forward as some member states have quite strong feelings about certain products and do not necessarily apply mutual recognition the way that they should do."
However he added that the FSE is grateful the European Commission has helped them to make mutual recognition run smoother for food supplements.