Today will see the second reading of the European Union's draft proposals for a directive on food supplements, sparking a new round of condemnation from supplement manufacturers and retailers across the Community.
According to the European Parliament, most MEPs feel that the draft proposal could be adopted with some minor changes "as it constitutes, overall, a balanced legal framework for food supplements and that it is consonant with the directive's main aims regarding the free movement of food supplements and consumer protection".
But there is a large and vociferous minority of MEPs who believe that the proposal should be rejected, arguing that, given the different cultures in the Member States and the fact that an absence of legislation had so far caused no problems, there is no need for a directive in this area.
The directive has two aims: to harmonise national legal provisions on food supplements and to establish an appropriate level of consumer protection for the use of food supplements in EU Member States. At the first reading, the European Parliament adopted amendments calling for ingredients such as amino acids, fatty acids and herbal extracts to be brought within the scope of the directive, for the labelling of products covered by the directive to always include the words 'food supplement' and for a range of warnings to be included.
These recommendations were then included in the new draft directive, which also took account of Parliament's position regarding substances omitted from the proposed directive and proposed a five-year inspection mechanism.
Emilia Müller, the German MEP who drew up the proposals, complained that she had been bombarded with emails on this subject from lobbyists. She said she felt their activities had been far too intrusive - and indeed counterproductive - in this particular case, but this is a measure of how strongly the supplements industry feels about the proposed directive.
As many as 300 products which are currently available throughout the Union could be banned or restricted by the new rules, lobbyists argue. Not only could this harm the livelihoods of the thousands of vitamin retailers and manufacturers but it could also have serious ramifications for the millions of people who rely on these products to treat a wide range of ailments.
The directive would give supplement manufacturers three years to submit information on the safety of their ingredients, which would have to be approved by the EU before going on sale.
Opponents of the directive say that the law is being pushed through because of lobbying by multinational pharmaceutical companies who want to eliminate competition. Many have also complained about the high costs entailed by testing every ingredient, which could force many smaller producers out of business. Some pills contain up to 70 ingredients, all of which would have to be tested under the new proposals.
The directive exempts 13 vitamins, 15 basic minerals and some of the forms in which they are used, but many more products will be excluded from sale if the directive is approved.
These include supplements such as boron, sulphur, vanadian, calcium ascorbate, magnesium, copper, iron, chromium and selenium.