Sunday, January 23, 2005

Another blow for big business

The Independent on Sunday today gives details of the last-minute bid by a wide range of consumer groups to stop the application of the EU’s food supplements directive, which will ban thousands of commercial brands of vitamins and mineral supplements.

The story is also carried by the Scotsman, with a clearer account of how British lawyers are set to go to the ECJ on Tuesday in a bid to overturn the directive, arguing that it could cripple scores of small firms in the £335-million food supplements sector.

The problem is that the law limits the sale of vitamins and supplements to those included on what is termed a "positive list", reversing the century-old tradition in British law that prohibits the sale of such product only if they can be shown to be unsafe.

In the directive, the burden of proof is reversed and before an estimated 5,000 common products – which are not on the EU’s list - can be sold, manufacturers must submit detailed scientific dossiers proving their ingredients are safe.

The costs of so doing, especially as many of the products have very limited sales, are prohibitive. Hence the British Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA), the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS) and Alliance for Natural Health, respectively representing small-scale suppliers and consumers, are challenging the ruling.

Andrew Lockley, head of public law at Irwin Mitchell, legal adviser to the HFMA and NAHS, said: "This argument really reflects a culture clash between Britain, where a third of women and a quarter of men take health-food supplements... where these products are traditionally treated like medicines.

This same story was actually visited by our Christopher Booker in November 2002, in the Sunday Telegraph when he illustrated it with the fate of a small but fast-growing Daventry company, which had recently won a Government-sponsored award for making "a positive impact on society". It was among thousands of firms likely to be put out of business by the directive which, Booker argued, marked a remarkable victory for the power of lobbying by big business.

But the specially relevant point that Booker made was that the pharmaceutical industry had been lobbying for years to place all herbal medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements on the same regulatory basis as mass-market drugs produced by the giant manufacturers. The advantages to them were obvious: they hoped to mop up the market with the mass-produced vitamin and mineral products they alone could afford to license.

In a related directive, herbal remedies are given the same treatment, leaving only synthetic drugs as substitutes – again to the advantage of the major pharmaceutical companies. And, to convince the regulators to move, wrote Booker, the commercial lobby has been in overdrive, with wild claims that vitamins such as B-6 and herbal remedies can be blamed for thousands of "adverse reactions", even deaths.

Meanwhile, the regulators, the Medicines Control Agency and the EU's new Medicines Evaluation Agency - which are almost entirely funded by licensing fees from the pharmaceutical companies - had remained (and still remain) strangely quiet about the thousands of deaths caused each year by synthetic drugs they themselves have licensed as safe to use.

"Now," he concluded in the piece back in November 2002, "the commercial giants are on the brink of victory."

Fast forward to the Independent piece, published today, and this is what we read:

Some large chains, such as Boots, have already reformulated their products to meet the new EU rules and say their customers will see no difference when the directive comes into force… "Consumers won't see a huge change," a spokeswoman said. "We fully support this EU directive."
Well done the EU: another blow for big business.

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