European judges reject British calls over vitamin supplements

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Controversial new European laws which could outlaw thousands of vitamin and mineral supplements were upheld by European Court judges today.

The European Court of Justice rejected British health food industry claims that the proposed Food Supplements Directive, coming into force on August 1, breaches EU rules.

The surprise decision goes against an opinion delivered by the same court's advocate-general in April, advising that the rules should be scrapped because they contravene basic EU principles of "legal protection, legal certainty and sound administration".

Today the judges countered that the proposed arrangements, designed to tighten controls on the growing market in products sold under the health food heading, can go ahead as planned.

Health food companies have to submit natural remedies, vitamin supplements and mineral plant extracts - many of them in long-established regular use in a £300 million-a-year market in the UK - for approval and inclusion on a list of recognised food supplements.

The judges backed the move saying: "A 'positive list' system is appropriate for securing the free movement of food supplements and ensuring the protection of human health."

But they also acknowledged the Advocate-General's concerns, emphasising that the list system "must be accompanied by a procedure which allows a given substance to be added to the lists, which is consistent with the principles of sound administration and legal certainty".

The judges went on: "An application to have a substance included on a list may be refused only on the basis of a full risk assessment, established on the basis of the most reliable scientific data available and the most recent results of international research. A refusal must also be open to challenge before the courts."

They pointed out that it is the European Commission's responsibility to ensure that the required consultation procedures between health food manufacturers and the European Food Safety Authority are transparent and completed within a reasonable time.

The conditions set out today may help mollify British health food campaigners who challenged the Directive in the hope of stopping it in its tracks before the August 1 start date.

The Alliance For Natural Health (ANH), backed by the British Health Food Manufacturers' Association (HFMA) and the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), claimed the rules were unnecessary and that the costs of complying would be prohibitive for many small firms which would be bankrupted after having supplied safe health foods for years. The ANH also argued that the Directive was incompatible with the free movement of goods.

But today's ruling said certain restrictions could be justified by the need to protect public health - and the terms of the Directive were "necessary and appropriate for the purpose of achieving that objective".

The ruling stated: "The Court rejected the applicant's arguments and confirmed the validity of the Directive."

The Directive was first approved by EU governments in 2002, and health food manufacturers were given until today - July 12, 2005 - to submit detailed scientific dossiers proving their ingredients were safe. Supplements failing to qualify by August 1 this year would be banned.

The plans caused controversy in Britain from the start, prompting a petition of more than one million signatures, a letter of protest to Prime Minister Tony Blair from more than 300 doctors and scientists, and motions opposing the euro-law from both Houses of Parliament.

But the judges said today that the Directive was "properly founded" in EU law: "The Court observed that, before the Directive was adopted, food supplements were regulated by differing national rules liable to impede the free movement of those goods and the functioning of the internal market."

That risk was reflected in the fact that the European Commission had received a "substantial" number of complaints from traders running into obstacles when trying to market in one member state food supplements which had already been successfully marketed in another.

Conservative Euro-MPs fighting to scrap the Directive reacted with dismay today.

The Tory health spokesman in the European Parliament John Bowis described the verdict as "a defeat for common sense and a victory for overregulation".

The proposed Directive was more about interference in people's lives than about promoting any health benefits, he claimed.

Mr Bowis estimated that about 300 nutrients and nutrient sources in the United Kingdom would now be banned unless they obtain inclusion on a positive list - a move requiring "excessive levels of testing and red tape".

The Liberal Democrat's European Parliament spokesman on public health, Chris Davies, said: "The Court's decision will be a bitter pill to swallow for many British campaigners. The legislation has been criticised from the beginning as equivalent to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

"But the consequences of this new law have been greatly exaggerated. No vitamin or supplement will disappear from the shelves unless it fails to gain approval after tests that may still be years off."

Comments