Not authorised: Majority of online traders are selling non-compliant supplements, finds European Commission investigation
During September 2017, Member States’ food authorities implemented the first EU coordinated control plan on internet-offered food products and supplements. Competent authorities from twenty-five members states (all except UK and Bulgaria) participated on a voluntary basis, together with Switzerland and Norway.
The action is a significant development in that it primarily targets supplements marketed online, rather than dispatching inspectors to stores to look for illicit foods, explained EU nutrition and law expert and managing director of Hylobates Consulting, Luca Bucchini.
Authorities checked nearly 1,100 websites and found 779 non-compliant offers. This was made up of 428 offers of unauthorised novel foods and 351 food supplements with unauthorised/ false medical claims.
The search focussed controls mainly on nationally located traders (482 offers), but also found over 200 intra-EU cross-border offers plus 110 offers from external countries (mainly U.S. and China).
Although not requested in the protocol, the authorities reported around 440 cases where further action was taken against the traders. These measures included shutting down offers of products, inspection of premises, issuing warnings and/or fines.
“Regulatory action was taken on almost all sites found in the Member States which did the controlling, which suggests online retailers should pay attention in the future to the increased enforcement,” said Bucchini.
“Even if national authorities decided to check mostly their own sites, over 200 non-compliant issues were found in a fellow Member States. This is where enforcement becomes potentially trickier, and where some retailers have made fortunes, counting on the limited controls by their own authorities and on the impotence of other Member States,” he added.
Focus on four products
The food products in question were the following four novel foods, which are not authorised in the EU:
- Agmatine (4-aminobutyl) guanidine sulfate,
- Acacia rigidula
- Epimedium grandiflorum
- Hoodia gordonii.
The high prevalence of these supplements was surprising, suggested Bucchini:
“It is remarkable that 192 websites offered for sale agmatine, a known novel food, but even more surprising that Acacia rigidula and Hoodia gordonii were offered for sale by 71 and 59 sites, respectively. Hoodia is not only a novel food, but is also listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
“The safety issues with what is purported to be "Acacia rigidula" (though it is probably a synthetic product) are well known. It seems that the EU has been finding it as difficult as the US FDA to address non-compliance with certain substances.”
Contrast between Member States’ responses
The differences in levels of checking varied substantially between Member States, observed Bucchini.
“Austria, Finland and Slovakia stand out for doing more checking, despite their small markets. On the contrary, Italy appears to be the laggard. Given its market size, the levels of checking has been very low, and resulted in no Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASSF) notifications.
Clearly Italian authorities do not have the resources or the ability to prioritize these controls, even as industry complains about unfair competition by non-compliant retailers and Italy feels victimised by EU rules.”
Ongoing political tensions with the EU may have contributed to the UK’s lack of participation, he suggested.
Further increase in controls planned
The high number of non-compliant websites found prompted the Commission to take a number of actions to strengthen controls further. These measures include training of additional staff in online investigations, seeking cooperation with payment service providers and establishing contact points for cooperation with major online platforms and market places. Further adjustments to legislation and electronic reporting systems are also planned.
“Further efforts are necessary, in particular to remind the main players of eCommerce such as platforms, payment services and the traders themselves of their responsibilities, to ask for their contributions to increase the safety of online offered foods and to reduce offers which mislead consumers,” advocated the authors of the report.
“All in all, this coordinated plan should be welcomed by consumers, the food supplement industry and retailers. The European Commission has also shown a proportionate approach targeting novel foods and claims the legal status of which is beyond doubt. It has also generated a knowledge basis for further action. Online retailers should pay attention,” concluded Bucchini.