Dear Sandra Goodman,
I would like to thank you for publishing the excellent article by Dr. Mike Abrahams on the European Food Supplements directive in your March issue. Abrahams explains the pitfalls of this "pork barrel" legislation in a very clear and systematic manner, and the list of "missing ingredients" is impressive. Of course the problem is tackled from a predominantly UK viewpoint, which is correct for your magazine and for the National Association of Health Stores, the association that Abrahams presides.
My aim in writing you is to give an international connotation to the problems this new EU legislation will bring, as well as to give testimony that there are efforts to counter the restrictive provisions of the directive not only in the UK, but in a number of other member states of the European Community as well. I am writing as a member of an Italian association - La Leva di Archimede - which has for some years been working here in Italy to raise awareness regarding issues of free choice in nutrition, natural health and poisonous substances in our environment and food supply. Our viewpoint on these matters and much of what we have been saying is publicly available on our website (http://www.laleva.cc). On that same site there also is a petition signed by more than 28.000 individuals who express their concern over restrictions envisioned by both Codex Alimentarius and the European Union on the availability of food supplements.
We have been in communication with other associations and individuals in other EU countries, who agree with both Dr. Abrahams and ourselves, that the EU's efforts to harmonize trade will eventually lead to restrictions for millions of consumers across Europe to access safe nutritional supplements. But let me first correct a common misconception, the one that consumers in the UK are kind of special, being the only ones who currently have access to a great variety of higher dosed vitamin and mineral supplements. This concept was also touched upon by Commissioner David Byrne in his recent "message to EU citizens on food supplements", published on the Internet. Byrne states:
"The rules on food supplements existing today in the different countries of the
European Union are very different. In many cases they are rather restrictive. As a
result many consumers, who would like to buy food supplements, are simply not able
to do so. In other cases the choice available is restricted. So one of the aims of the
Directive is to allow consumers across the European Union to have a wide range of
products from which to choose."
This is somewhat misleading because even in countries where food supplements are officially considered medicines if exceeding certain dosages, say 150% or 300% of the RDA, supplements such as those found in the UK are generally available and are tolerated by the authorities. As an example, you may purchase several different brands of vitamin products in Italy's health food stores, which are either herbal or biological food stores, of say 1000 mg of vitamin C, 400 mg of vitamin E and high dose B complex formulations with 50 or even 100 mg of the various B vitamins. The same is true for multivitamin products containing these and other ingredients. It is one thing to look at the law and say "poor Italians, they have no access to food supplements" and it is quite another to go and investigate what is actually on the market and what consumers do routinely buy.
Even in such "officially" restrictive countries as Denmark, Greece, Spain or Portugal, vitamin products of high dosage are being sold in both health stores and pharmacies and are in some way tolerated by the health authorities. Germany, Austria and France, probably the most restrictive markets in Europe, make no exception. Let's for instance examine Germany, where health authorities seem determined to "stomp out all illegal health products" even if that means raiding companies that import them and confiscating their stocks and records. Despite heavy handed police actions against vitamins by the German police, tens of thousands of German consumers of vitamin products order their healthy supplements from companies that sit in England, in the US, or even just a few kilometers across the border in the Netherlands. Their supplements arrive in individual post packets, much to the chagrin of the German pharmacists and the associations especially set up by the pharmaceutical industry to "take care of" the competition of unapproved products.
So it is definitely not true that consumers in Continental Europe have no way to obtain their supplements, and the EU Commission as well as the Council of Ministers would do well to take a closer look at the actual situation in the member states before rushing into issuing and enforcing a directive that on the surface looks like a "liberalization" for many countries, but which, on the ground, will be perceived as an intolerable blow to the freedom of choice of millions of European consumers. When Commissioner Byrne states in his message that "it is expected that as a result of the adoption of the Directive, many products that are currently sold as medicines in certain member states will become available as food supplements", he is of course talking of the "official" situation that has little to do with the reality of the market or with what consumers are actually buying. Byrne is either not telling the truth, or he has been very much misled about the situation in the (continental) member countries of the EU.
Consumers ready to protest - Natural Health Alliance Europe formed
Reference is made in Commissioner Byrne's statement to "a large number of letters from citizens who are concerned about the proposed Directive on food supplements", stating that the arguments that have induced these people to write the Commission were "false and misleading". We believe that rather than the arguments of who is protesting, misleading are the false assurances of the Commission that nothing will change or that things will get better after the directive. Basil Mathioudakis, the Commission official responsible for the food supplements directive, stated during a discussion of the directive in the European Parliament's Environment Committee that "we will not take any products off the market". That is clearly false, one need only examine the list of substances that are to be allowed as sources of vitamins and minerals, and the list of "missing" substances published by "Positive Health" in the article of Mike Abrahams. The argument that "industry will just have to prove these substances are safe", made by the same Mr. Mathioudakis in the presence of this writer, is little consolation, when the approval depends on the submission of an exceedingly expensive dossier of scientific studies and toxicological evaluation, including animal tests, normally reserved for potentially toxic additives that are by no means essential in the way vitamins and minerals are.
The heavy handed (although soft spoken) attitude of the Commission has spawned a pan European protest movement, which threatens to grow, as the Commission's intentions become more widely known. There is already another EU Directive in the works that will attempt to extend the very restrictive German system - in Germany herbal products are sold only as registered medicines - to the rest of Europe. Also, an existing directive on medicinal products is to be amended and the proposed new definition of a medicine will put the very existence of the natural products sector in doubt. Although these pieces of EU legislation are separate from the food supplements directive, they form, together with it, a thread which permits us to predict what is to come.
Clearly the whole field of natural and nutritional products, the natural alternatives to pharmaceutically dominated medicine as well as freedom of choice of consumers with regard to nutrition and prevention are not the first things on the Commissioners' minds. It seems that rather the natural health alternatives might be secondary in importance to the profits of the pharmaceutical giants. The accusation of favouring the multinationals over small indigenous business has been levelled at the Commission several times before. It has even been decided that legislation that affects trade and production must carry what is known as an SME impact assessment, a statement of what kind of effect the legislation will have on the operating environment of small and medium sized enterprises. Perhaps not surprisingly, no such assessment was done when the EU Commission proposed the food supplements directive.
The recently formed Natural Health Alliance (NHA-Europe) is ready to take the Commission to task on its intentions and actions. The Alliance was formed in the UK and was active in protests against the food supplements directive. The name NHA goes back to the early nineties where another NHA (Nutritional Health Alliance) was an integral part of the successful popular uprising which pre-empted the FDAs attempts of reducing supplement dosages to RDA levels. Public pressure and unprecedented lobbying eventually resulted in the passage of modern dietary supplements legislation in the USA, the Dietary Health and Education Act. NHA-Europe has "organised" support in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Portugal and Spain and has individual members in still other EU countries. It is destined to grow unless the EU decides to take into account the very serious grievances of the natural health sector.
There are consumers in many of the member states who currently do use high dosed supplements, either because of having made a conscious decision based on available information, or because they have been told to integrate their diet by nutritional and orthomolecular practitioners. They obtain these supplements either legally or by tolerance of the authorities, or even against the will of governments such as in Germany, Austria and France. If the number of letters and e-mails received by the Commission and the members of the European Parliament was any indication, we may expect a groundswell of public protest once the first products start disappearing from the market.
Once we see some more of the small and medium sized producers wake up to the very real threat to their existence, and once nutritional and orthomolecular therapists get to grips with the fact that they are being deprived of an important instrument of their work, we may see the start of an extended popular uprising against what has been variously called "nanny statism" or an insensible "meddling of the EU bureaucracy" with natural health.
What is a riddle difficult to fathom is, why the EU would pass by such a golden opportunity for strengthening, rather than weakening as they seem set to do, the public health potential of prevention through natural medicine and through the widespread use of natural and nutritional products. They could potentially "turn around" the trend of ever increasing health spending by putting the emphasis where it should be: An ounce of prevention - to paraphrase a popular saying - would certainly be better than a pound of cure.
La Leva di Archimede
If you would like to know more about the Natural Health Alliance Europe, you can contact
Dr Robert Verkerk
51 Canterbury Road
Hampshire GU14 6QP
Tel: (01252) 377931
Fax: (01252) 371275
Mobile: 0771 484 7225