The European food supplements and botanical markets have been under scrutiny for many years, with regulators exploring how to best manage the space even as consumers are turning to these products to bolster their well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a re-examination of many aspects of the global nutraceutical supply chain, including quality measures and transparency. Luca Bucchini of Hylobates shares his insights around the issue of botanical ingredients in the EU market.
Europeans increasingly appreciate botanicals in food supplements. In the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have sought botanicals to support their immune systems, and much more. While the European botanicals market has thrived for years, it has been easy to point to a frustrating European regulatory framework.
Regulation of botanicals is up to Member States, with just three out of 27 trying the common approach known as BELFRIT. Moreover, one of the tenets of the EU’s single market, the principle of mutual recognition, has found few defenders when it comes to botanicals and the protectionist barriers of the Member States. Even more significantly, health claims for botanicals have been in limbo since 2012; a limbo preferable to the hell of rejections which probiotics have faced, but yet not conductive to meaningful and consistent communication with consumers, or to investment in research and quality.
Yet, for the first time in eight years, the post-COVID era brings a glimmer of hope that some of those barriers may be coming down, in the interest of quality, safety, efficacy and product diversity, under the auspices of the Refit initiative.
There are reasons to be cautious. A viable solution is yet to be found. Some Member States, and MEPs, do not have much time for improving the quality of food supplements, but repeat in monotone the “medicine is best” mantra. EFSA has not yet shown it is consistently capable for a proportionate and consistent assessment of botanicals. Nevertheless, there is concrete hope that a reasonable solution is feasible.
Any solution must focus on improving and ensuring quality; currently, the biggest threat is adulteration. The 2019 Italian acute hepatitis outbreak, which authorities have linked to turmeric, is less known for what it has revealed: massive use of synthetic sources sold to manufacturers and consumers as natural turmeric. Research suggests this is not an isolated incident. Perhaps lulled by the high quality of some European suppliers, authorities and stakeholders are not prepared for the scale of the problem. Yet, adulteration is an immediate threat not only to consumers and industry, but also to individual manufacturers and brands.
There are many things that individual companies should do to protect their brands.
First, there needs to be an awareness with procurement, quality, and regulatory staff as well as management and marketing that adulteration is widespread, and is a serious threat to the confidence of consumers and to the compliance of products.
Second, knowledge is essential, including about supply chains, testing methods, known fraudulent behaviour, and prices.
Third, there is a need to act on that knowledge in a systematic manner, and the opportunity to communicate with consumers and across the industry about these issues.
It is still often heard that “With a random supplier’s statement and a laboratory report on file, why would I need to worry?” The answer is that concern is necessary based on dozens of studies and reports: statements have been found to be false, and lab reports misleading. We should not be surprised; food fraud has always been a concern in the food supply, and sometimes fraudsters have even caused adverse health effects. Food fraud has been fought before in many segments of the food industry, and with success.
Scientific studies suggest consumers are willing to pay less for products that they suspect may be fraudulent; locally sourced raw materials seem to suffer less. On the other hand, consumers—especially Millennials—have proven willing to pay more for higher quality. Food fraud is one of the priorities for the new European Commission and for Europol.
Editor’s Note: Luca Bucchini is a food risk scientist, and an expert in food and food supplement regulation. After public health and food risk studies at Johns Hopkins, in the United States, he co-founded the Rome-based food consultancy Hylobates in 2003. He and his team have helped register thousands of plant food supplements across Europe, and supported businesses comply with EU law. He has worked with the vibrant botanicals industry for years, with its intriguing scientific and regulatory challenges. Bucchini will be speaking on “The post-COVID EU botanical world” on Tuesday 8 September as part of Vitafoods Virtual Week. Click here to learn more and get registered.