The European Commission has put forward a range of proposals designed to harmonise the rules on adding vitamins and minerals to foods - a long-awaited piece of legislation which will make it much easier for many producers of such fortified foods to sell their goods across the EU.
At present, each Member State has its own different rules on the fortification of foods, a marketing minefield for companies wanting to do business across all 15 - soon to be 25 - members of the Union.
But this fact has also meant that drawing up a Community-wide proposal has taken years, with some countries unwilling to give up restrictions on ingredients which other countries permitted in far greater quantities.
But the new proposals will help facilitate trade between the various Member States by setting out a definitive list of approved vitamins, minerals and other substances with the minimum and maximum levels set according to scientific advice. It also sets out how such foods will be labelled, ensuring that consumers are aware how much of each nutrient has been added.
"We all know a healthy diet is a varied diet. People choosing to add nutrients to their diet by selecting foodstuffs fortified with vitamins and minerals should be guaranteed safe products labelled with clear and accurate information to avoid any risk of taking a vitamin overdose," said David Byrne, the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "Industry would also benefit from clear EU-wide rules backed up by solid science," he added.
Byrne said that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would be responsible for evaluating any potential risk from vitamins, minerals and other substances added to food, while the maximum and minimum permitted levels would be set by the European Commission and government experts in the framework of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health.
So what will all this mean to the European consumer? Well, firstly, the regulations offer a guarantee of safety for all fortified foods, as well as making it much easier for consumers to assess the intake of each nutrient in their diet, and how much they actually need.
"Vitamins and minerals in the right quantities are an essential part of a healthy diet but people are often unaware that too much of a good thing can be harmful. For example, large amounts of vitamin A are not recommended for pregnant women or people with liver disease," said Byrne.
"The proposed new regulations will ensure only safe doses of such nutrients are added to individual foods and that their total intake within the context of a varied diet does not become excessive."
The regulations would allow almost any product to be fortified, provided it did not pose a risk to the health of consumers, although fresh food such as fruit, vegetables or meat will not be included. Adding vitamins or minerals to alcoholic drinks will also not be allowed, in line with the EU's efforts to combat alcohol abuse.
The proposals have been warmly welcomed by Europe's food and drink industry. The CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) said that the proposal was "a positive step toward the creation of a real single market for fortified foods" and that it should "ensure high consumer protection, whilst at the same time offering a varied choice of foods adapted to modern life constraints and contributing to nutritional balance."
"For the food and drink industry, safety is the prior condition for the addition of all vitamins and minerals," said Jean Martin, president of the CIAA. "The CIAA welcomes the fact that this principle is the basis of the Commission proposal and that it foresees safety guarantees."
But not every aspect of the proposal was welcomed by the CIAA. "The scope of the proposal also covers the addition of other substances [than vitamins and minerals]. Even though the CIAA is aware of the need to establish a legal framework for all other substances, it fears that the extension of the text to other substances could hold up harmonisation for the addition of vitamins and minerals, given the legal instruments and authorisation procedures are in essence very different."