Guest Article

Who killed Europe’s food supplement industry?

Getty | D-Keine
Getty | D-Keine

Related tags Supplements Regulation

It is 2030, and economists investigating the lack of growth in Europe are asking questions about the fate of once thriving industrial sectors which are now comatose.

Some are investigating the fate of the once ebullient European food supplement industry, which, fuelled by aging European’s desire for wellbeing and beauty, seemed unstoppable and among world leaders, in terms of innovation and also of regulations. Now, the corpse lays flat for all to see. European consumers are turning to Chinese, Indian or US brands for well-being products. Innovation, raw materials, products, and brands now come from Asia, or, more recently, from South America.

The EU is attempting to enforce its draconian laws, but, in order to secure trade deals, it is considering lowering standards, because – with food supplements coming from an unchecked Metaverse as retail outlets have virtually been prohibited from selling supplements – consumers trust Chinese and US rules more than theirs. Rather than a super-stringent rule-setter, the EU now has to take the rules of other countries.

How could this happen? Or, in other words, who is the killer?

Economists turned sleuths were quick to interrogate Germany. It is the obvious suspect. With great cunning and in culmination of a decade of preparation, in 2023, it had managed to lead on harmonised maximum permitted levels of vitamins and minerals across the EU. To the cheers of its pharmaceutical industry, thanks to hyperconservative assumptions (for example, that consumers would take two vitamin C supplements with the maximum dosage on the same day), maximum permitted levels were set so low that supplementation with vitamins and minerals has become meaningless.

To achieve high vitamin intake, desperate consumers can either drink litres of orange juice, or place their hopes on the Internet. Even earlier, in 2019, a court in little known Hamm killed beauty claims; the judges there – astonishing other Member States - have ruled that it’s them, not EFSA, who can decide what is a physiological effect on the body.

The battle against botanicals has been as determined, as partial; hydroxyanthracenes from plants are an immediate threat to all if from food supplements, but they are essentially harmless if the identical product bears the herbal medicine words on it.

While we learnt more and more about the role of bacteria in our guts, Germany’s highest court was absolute on the need to ban the term. Though on this, investigators felt the need to investigate the Commission and EFSA, who, as we shall see, could at least be seen as accomplices. But maybe it was not Germany, after all.

Someone whispered the name of a small country in the ears of the sleuths - Denmark. Sifting through the files, the Danish need to be considered suspects. They are better prepared than most other countries, they have an efficient food control system, and, after belatedly accepting they have to comply with EU rules, have had an absolute determination to eliminate food supplement substances using the infamous “article 8” as their torture device. Were they always wrong? Probably not, but its hard to defend the proportionality of all their views.

But, as in good detective stories, the doctor says the weapon was too heavy for a small person to use for the killing. So someone else must have helped Denmark, if Hamlet’s compatriots are indeed to blame. Who had the physical size and the keys to the victim’s room? Well, of course, look no further than the Commission itself. In retrospect one may even see a design – even if absurd in many ways – from the Commission. Despite ardent recommendations to regulate the quality of botanicals and related claims, the Von Der Leyen Commission shelved the plans with no guilt – no matter the damage to consumers and to industry.

Who chose the merciless procedures of article 8 for food supplements, when for the same issues the more reasonable contaminant regulation was used for food? Who failed to have a minimum of vision on probiotics? Who forgot about the treaties and left poor mutual recognition at the mercy of its declared enemies, the Member States? Omission of help is the minimum charge for the Commission.

If it acted, the Commission did not act alone. I am sure many readers would ask: Why not call to the station EFSA? I cannot disagree. I always praise the Parma-based organisation which is great at many things (though terrible at choosing logos, especially its own) but it is hard to deny accusers have a point. The deluge of claims required some quick decisions at the macro-level, but at least some guilt on probiotics should be on display from an innocent party. The loss of faith of applicants in the health claim process – which cannot be down to the evidence alone – is a blemish.

What about those supposedly above suspicion? Aren’t they always the “real suspects”?

Let’s start with consumers. Perhaps consumers killed European food supplements, as they killed many other products over the centuries. But it’s easy to leave them off the hook. There is no doubt – with plenty of consumer survey data – that consumers liked European food supplements to maintain their health.

Should we instead look among the Belfrit nations – plant food supplement loving countries? Of course, we can’t overlook Belgium, which used to be considered the toughest but also most reliable regulator of food supplements in the EU, with some experts arguing it should be used as the entry point to the EU. Don’t Belgians have anything to confess? Do the words “novel food” help? The novel food regulation was designed to protect public health and give companies legal certainty. In the hands of Belgians (and not only Belgians to be fair), it has become a device of the Inquisition. Who is certain not to be novel? Anything can be novel – unless the companies has proof. Bread? Mussels? Water? Who knows; they might be novel, or they might not.

And inevitably, as all inquisitors do, the Belgians found the worst heretics in their ranks, so they were poised to declare novel foods dozens of plants that they had previously declared not novel. They have transformed a public health tool into a metaphysical question to be discussed in a Kafkaesque castle, in a game of mirrors where nobody can be certain of anything. If they did it, it was through slow poison.

What about the French? When you have an authority that has grown to be considered the leading regulator on food supplement in Europe, trying to combine (not always successfully) a scientific detailed approach to proportionate regulation and decide to give up all expertise to move the job to another inexperienced authority, you wonder if there is method in the madness. Of course, the new authority immediately starts to impose new forms as its priority, which even they don’t seem to understand. Well done, Emanuel!

Or was it Italy, after all? The largest market, the ever-growing land of food supplements, the most American market in Europe, and for a long time perhaps the most liberal? Obsessed with Nutriscore, with the absurd threat of synthetic meat and insects, the Italians did not pay attention and certainly were incapable of working in a constructive coalition as in the old days. They perhaps thought Europe did not matter to their habits, and could happily swap medicines for food supplements in the doctor’s office, or that a little more wishful thinking would do the trick, with a new officer here or there, with more money on marketing and little on research and on the science that the rest of Europe awaits, while everyone partied on as the band played on. Except it was Titanic’s.

Should we not listen to Poland and its rogue law on food supplements that is supposed to be above EU law? Or wasn’t Brexit a self-inflicted wound that also destroyed the balance in Europe?

But hey! Maybe it was suicide. Perhaps the industry killed itself, through lack of investment, vision, leadership, by the habit of getting its own ways at home without realising the difference of the European game, by the lack of research and data supporting the substances, by lack of real advocacy, by the tolerance of the good companies for the companies who cut corners.

Or maybe, in the end, it may turn out that the prime suspect was the right one, after all, though in a way that nobody suspected. Who knows? But, hey, we are in 2023?

Can we still save the industry? Should we? Economics tell us so, but more importantly it is consumers. Consumers – we – wish to live longer and healthier lives; science delivers everyday new insights on how we can – at a personal level – do better. A healthy diet, sleep and exercise cannot be replaced, but it would be foolish to say that nutrients and other substances from nature cannot play a further role. Some food supplements don’t work, but many others do, and there is abundant proof; some others are safe and are a legitimate bet for some consumers to take. How can a responsible policy-maker deny access in principle to these products?

So what can be done? It is hard to deny that the game is getting tougher; while many scientists advance legitimate concerns, the determination and cunning of the ideological and commercial opposition to food supplements is now extraordinary. Better science and better arguments, and a determination to ensure proportionality at the EU level – even to the point of re-learning some lessons of yore from the UK on maximum permitted limits, for example – can still make this article an object of ridicule in seven years.

I sincerely hope so.

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