Last month, the European Single Use Plastics (SUP) Directive came into force. The purpose of this Directive is to reduce plastic litter, especially in the sea. Think for example of styrofoam hamburger trays or disposable plastic salad boxes for a meal on the go. The SUP Directive is part of the European action plan towards a circular economy (part of the Green Deal), to which re-use and recycling of products is central. The SUP Directive includes a phased introduction of various measures, with the goal of all plastic packaging being reusable or easily recyclable by 2030.
Scope SUP Directive
The SUP Directive primarily covers single-use plastic products. This includes packaging and other products that are partially made of plastic, such as cardboard boxes with a plastic coating. Plastics are materials consisting of a polymer, to which additives may have been added. Natural polymers that occur naturally in the environment are excluded from the definition of ‘plastic’. Bio-based and biodegradable plastics (based on natural polymers that have been chemically modified) are instead covered under the Directive. Single-use refers to the situation in which the product is not conceived, designed or placed on the market to accomplish, within its life span, multiple trips or rotations by being returned to a producer for refill or re-sued for the same purpose for which it was conceived. What exactly constitutes a single-use plastic product is further clarified in a guideline issued by the European Commission. Among other things, the composition and potential washability and repairability of the product play a role in this.
In addition to single-use plastic products, the SUP Directive also pays attention to products made of oxo-degradable plastics and fishing gear. Fishing gear is namely responsible for a large percentage of the plastics in marine litter. Oxo-degradable plastics are addressed by the Directive because these plastics have a negative impact on the environment and do not fit within a circular economy. This is because oxo-degradable plastics fragment into tiny particles, which then disappear in the environment.
Restrictions on placing on the market
Since 3 July 2021, the date of application of the SUP Directive, it has been prohibited to market products made of oxo-degradable plastics and the plastic products listed in Part B of the Annex to the SUP Directive. This includes plates, beverage stirrers, certain food containers as well as cups and containers for beverages made of expanded polystyrene (a type of styrofoam), sticks to be attached to and to support balloons, including the mechanisms of such sticks (unless for professional applications) and cotton bud sticks and straws (unless they qualify as medical devices).
The trade ban applies to the above-mentioned packaging and other plastic products placed on the market from 3 July 2021. The term ‘placing on the market’ refers to a product being supplied for distribution, consumption or use on the market of a Member State in the course of a commercial activity, whether in return for payment or free of charge, for the first time. Plastic products that have already become part of the supply chain in a given Member State before the trade ban entered into force, for example because a food business operator purchased such from its supplier prior to the aforementioned date, may therefore continue to be used in that Member State even after the trade ban has become applicable. However, the foregoing does not apply to products that were placed on the market in a certain Member State before 3 July 2021, and that are further distributed in another Member State after that date (in the context of a commercial activity). Thus, if a Dutch food company has in stock food packaging covered by the trade ban that it purchased from its supplier prior to 3 July 2021, it can continue using this packaging for food products to be marketed in the Netherlands. However, the Dutch food company can no longer use this packaging for its food products destined for the Spanish market. Although this seems to go against the internal market principles of the EU, the SUP Directive explicitly refers to placing on the market of a Member State (and not on the EU market).
Disposal instructions for beverage cups
Conspicuous, clearly legible and indelible marking on plastic products should, since 3 July 2021, ensure that consumers are aware of how to dispose of these and are aware of the negative impact of littering or other improper means of waste disposal on the environment. The European Commission has established marking specifications for this purpose. These markings may be affixed by means of stickers in case of products placed on the market before 4 July 2022. Thereafter, the markings must be printed on the product itself, or on its packaging. The text of the marking must be in the official language(s) of the Member State(s) where the product is marketed. Where the product is marketed in several Member States, it will usually be necessary to include the text of the markings in several languages. Based on Part D of the Annex to the SUP Directive, the above marking requirements apply to beverage cups and several non-food related plastic products.
Other litter-reducing measures
The SUP Directive includes many other rules, such as that caps and lids must remain attached to plastic beverage containers during their entire intended use stage (as of 3 July 2024). In addition, beverage bottles must contain at least 25% recycled plastic from 2025, and at least 30% recycled plastic from 2030. However, the above measures only apply to beverage containers and bottles of up to 3 liters. Furthermore, glass and metal beverage bottles with caps and lids made from plastic are exempt from the above rules, as well as such beverage bottles for food for special medical purposes.
In addition, the SUP Directive calls on Member States to take awareness raising measures to prevent and reduce litter, to ensure the separate collection for recycling, to take the necessary measures to achieve consumption reduction, and to establish extended producer responsibility schemes. The latter means, in short, that ‘the polluter pays’ and that the producer or importer thus pays the cost of cleaning up litter. The Annex to the SUP Directive indicates the plastic products to which the above measures apply.
Measures differ between Member States
Although the SUP Directive was adopted at European level, this does not mean that measures to prevent litter and stimulate a circular economy will be the same in all Member States. To achieve reduction in the consumption of single-use plastics, a Member State may for instance set national targets, take measures to ensure that re-usable alternatives are made available at the point of sale to the final consumer, or ensure that single-use plastic food and beverage containers are no longer provided free of charge to the final consumer. Next to the above-mentioned examples, there are many other possibilities that Member States may exploit.
In the Netherlands, the SUP Directive is implemented in the Single-use Plastic Products Decree (in Dutch: Besluit kunststofproducten voor eenmalig gebruik) and in the Packaging Management Decree 2014 (in Dutch: Besluit beheer verpakkingen 2014). To achieve reduction in the consumption of single-use plastics, the Netherlands is keeping open the possibility of no longer providing food packaging and beverage cups (as defined in article 15d of the Packaging Management Decree 2014) free of charge to the final consumer, having available a re-usable alternative to the final consumer at the point of sale and/or prohibiting the provision of the above-mentioned products to the final consumer at certain locations or occasions. Such measures will apply as per 1 January 2023.
Companies operating in several Member States would do well to become familiar with the national measures relevant to them. For plastic products listed in Part E of the Annex to the SUP Directive (including certain single-use food and beverage containers), the Directive even explicitly requires producers that sell such products in a Member State other than where they are established to appoint an authorized representative in the Member State of sale. The authorized representative is responsible for ensuring that the producer’s obligations in the Member State of sale are met.
Although the SUP Directive appears to be a set of restrictions, it is also meant to encourage the production and use of sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic products. For example, food companies that depend on packaging for the shelf life and quality of their products, or to convey information to consumers, may want to explore their options to switch to reusable packaging, to set up collection and recycling systems, or to use other materials such as paper and cardboard (without plastic coating). Of course, such sustainable initiatives should not come at the expense of food hygiene and food safety.
Plastic products are increasingly being restricted to protect the environment and human health. Food companies using packaging consisting wholly or partly of plastic are advised to check whether the packaging they use is covered by the SUP Directive, what measures apply to it and whether alternatives are available. It should also be borne in mind here that measures under the SUP Directive are introduced gradually and may differ per EU Member State. For entrepreneurs who operate intra-Community, the correct implementation of the new rules will require the necessary efforts. But who does not want to move towards a more liveable world and a sustainable production chain? The reduction of plastic could make a valuable contribution to that purpose.
From May 26 this year, the personalized nutrition space has been enriched with a new piece of legislation: the Regulation (EU) 2017/745 on medical devices (hereinafter: “MDR”). The MDR is, generally speaking, applicable to all personalized nutrition (software) products, including apps and algorithms, with a medical intended purpose. Since most personal nutrition services that are currently on the market are lifestyle related, they will not be affected by the MDR. This will however be different for services that offer dietary advice for the prevention, alleviation or treatment of a disease. This blogpost aims to provide an introduction to the new rules on personalized nutrition as a medical device.
What is the MDR?
The MDR comprises of a set of rules that governs the full medical devices supply chain from manufacturer to end user in order to ensure the safety and performance of medical devices. It applies to any apparatus, application, software or other article intended by the manufacturer to be used for a medical purpose. This includes, like under the old medical devices legislation, the diagnosis, prevention, monitoring, treatment or alleviation of a disease. Since the application of the MDR, also devices designed for the prediction or prognosis of a disease qualify as a medical device. Genetic testing kits for medical purposes and other medical devices to be used in vitro for the examination of specimens such as blood are covered by the MDR’s sister, Regulation (EU) 2017/746 on in-vitro diagnostic medical devices (hereinafter: “IVDR”). The IVDR applies from May 26 next year.
When does the MDR apply to personalized nutrition software?
The essential question for the MDR’s applicability is thus whether the article or software concerned has a medical purpose or is merely lifestyle or well-being related. For example, an app that provides dietary advice based on the users’ preferences and potential health data is a lifestyle product. But if the same app claims to help address obesity or treat hypertension, then it can be linked to a disease and transforms into a medical device. While the intention of the manufacturer of the device is leading for the application of the MDR, it should be noted that only a statement that a product is not a medical device, or is meant for lifestyle purposes only, does not constitute a reason to escape from this regulation. The intended purpose is inferred from every document and statement that expresses the intended purpose, including advertising and marketing material. Disclaiming a medical intended purpose in the instructions for use but claiming such purpose in marketing materials will still result in a finding of a medical intended purpose. The MDR contains an explicit prohibition on statements that may mislead the end user about the intended purpose or ascribes functions or properties to the device that it does not have, which would be caught in its scope.
Another example of a medical device is the wearable being developed by the Australian start-up Nutromics, which assesses dietary biomarkers to provide dietary advice to minimize users’ risk for lifestyle-related chronic diseases. This device is designed to predict the user’s likelihood of developing a particular disease and to subsequently provide advice to prevent such disease, and will therefore be subject to the MDR when placed on the Union market. On the other hand and as clarified earlier by the European Commission in its borderline manual for medical devices, a home-kit that enables the user to ascertain their blood group in order to determine whether a specific diet should be followed falls outside the medical sphere (as defined in the (old) medical devices legislation). The sidenote should however be made that this decision was not related to following a specific diet for medical purposes.
It is also relevant to state that software may as well qualify partly as a medical device and partly as a non-medical device. Think for example of an app that provides the user with personalized nutritional advice as part of the treatment or alleviation of diabetes, and additionally facilitates online contact with fellow patients. While the software module(s) that provide information on the treatment or alleviation of the disease will be subject to the MDR, the software module that is responsible for the contact amongst patients has no medical purpose and will therefore not be subject to the MDR. The manufacturer of the device is responsible for identifying the boundaries and the interfaces of the medical device and non-medical device modules contained in the software. The Medical Device Coordination Group has pointed out in its guidance on qualification and classification of software (October 2019) that if the medical device modules are intended for use in combination with other modules of the software, the whole combination must be safe and must not impair the specified performances of the modules which are subject to the MDR. This means that also the non-medical devices module(s) may have to be covered in the technical documentation that supports the device’s compliance with the MDR and as further introduced below.
Way to market of personal nutrition software
All medical devices placed on the Union market must in principle have a CE (conformité européenne) marking as proof of compliance with the law. To apply the CE-mark, the manufacturer has to prepare technical documentation and carry out a conformity assessment procedure, including clinical evaluation. The specific procedure that must be followed depends on the risk class of the device. The MDR distinguishes the risk classes I, IIa, IIb and III (from low to high). The higher the risk class of the device, the more stringent requirements for clinical evaluation apply to demonstrate safety, performance and clinical benefits. It could ironically be stated that MDR stands for More Data Required: where an analysis of available clinical data from literature may have been sufficient in the past, the MDR more often requires own clinical investigations to support the device’s safety and performance.
Under the MDR, software as medical device is classified as class IIa when it is intended to provide information which is used to take decisions with diagnosis or therapeutic purposes, or to monitor physiological processes. Translated to personal nutrition services, this would for instance include apps that track burned calories (monitoring of physiological processes) and that provide dietary advice as part of a treatment (therapeutic purposes). Risk increasing factors will however lead to a higher risk class than class IIa. While an app with which food products’ barcodes can be scanned to detect certain ingredients for allergen control purposes would normally be a class IIa device, it will be a class III device when food intake decisions based on the app may cause life-threatening allergic reactions when based on a false negative (safe to eat while it in fact is not safe).
All other software which is not specifically addressed but still has a medical intended purpose in scope of the definition of a medical device, is classed as class I. An example would be an app that provides nutritional support with a view to conception. The risk classification rules for software are new under the MDR, which means that existing medical devices software may be scaled in a higher risk class since 26 May 2021. This is relevant not only with regard to the conformity assessment procedure that must be followed, but also to the question who can perform the required assessment of legal compliance. Manufacturers of devices in a higher class than class I must always engage a so-called notified body in this regard, while class I devices can in principle be self-certified by the manufacturer. An exception exists however for class I devices that have a measurement function, for example by using the lidar of the user’s phone to measure the body as input for the functionality of the app, which also require the engagement of a notified body.
Take away for food businesses
When personal nutrition enters into the medical sphere, the MDR will come into play. This will impact first and foremost the manufacturers, importers and distributors of actual medical devices, including apps and algorithms. Having said that, food businesses that wish to market their food products through medical devices apps are advised to be aware of the implications thereof. This will help them to find a reliable partner and to ensure their interests are contractually protected.
A more elaborate version of this blogpost has been published at Qina in cooperation with Mariette Abrahams.
Cultured meat is making its way to the market globally. Recently, we saw this movie from Super Meat, serving cultured meat in a restaurant where in the same time cultured meat was actually being cultured. Earlier, tasting sessions by Aleph Farms of its cell-based steak were shared via social media. And at the end of last year, it was reported that Eat Just had gained regulatory approval to market its cultured chicken in Singapore. This made me (and I guess many others!) wonder how the regulatory approval process is set up in the Lion City. Last week, I had an interview with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the outcome of which I report in this blogpost. I also compare the information received to the regulatory system for authorisation of cultured meat in place in the EU.
Which foods are considered Novel Foods in Singapore?
Before putting in place its Novel Foods regulatory framework in 2019, the SFA took inspiration from similar legislation applicable in other parts of the world, amongst others in the EU. This clearly transpires from the definition of a Novel Food. The SFA considers Novel Foods to be foods that do not have a history of safe use. This is the case if substances have not been consumed as an ongoing part of the (human) diet by a significant human population during at least 20 years. This definition is pretty similar to the one used in the EU, except that the EU definition uses (i) 15 May 1997 as a fixed point in time cut-off date and (ii) a closed-loop system of 10 Novel Food categories. In Singapore, just like in other places of the world, it goes without saying that cultured meat (“meat developed from animal cell culture”) requires prior market authorisation. Whereas in the EU this could also take place (depending on the production process applied) on the basis of a GMO authorisation, my understanding is that in Singapore the designated route is a Novel Food authorisation. In the EU, a distinction is made between foods containing GMOs and foods produced from GMOs on the one hand and food produced with GMOs on the other. Whereas the first two categories require GMO clearance, the third one does not.
Organisation Singapore Food Agency
Contrary to the EU, where EFSA operates as an external advisory body to the European Commission the National Centre for Food Science (NCFS) forms an integral part of the SFA. The NCFS consists of food inspection services and laboratory testing services and a representative thereof also took part in the interview. This setup and Singapore’s 5.7 million inhabitants (compared to over 445 million in the EU) potentially explains the shorter timelines during the regulatory approval process, as outlined below.
Regulatory Approval Process
The SFA acknowledges the science for producing cultured meat is still in an early stage. So far, it has set up a modest framework defining the Requirements for the Safety Assessment of Novel Foods. It however explicitly states the information required may change based on the developments on the science of producing cultured meat. The data required for evaluating the safety of Novel Foods largely correspond to the data required under the EU regulatory framework. They include information on the identity and the manufacturing process applied, as well as on the intended use and proposed levels of use. Toxicity studies (both in-vitro and in-vivo) and metabolism or toxicokinetic studies are requested “where relevant”. For cultured meat specifically, they include information on the cell lines, culture media and scaffolding materials used. Finally, any safety assessment reports conducted by the food safety authorities of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, the EU and the USA are considered relevant. For the EU, the SFA Guidance states that safety assessments conducted in accordance with the ESFA Guidance for submission of food additive evaluations would be accepted for review. This guidance is referred to in the EFSA Guidance for novel food applications in the context of toxicity testing and propagates a tiered approach for the type of safety parameters to be satisfied. This means that if no risk indicators are revealed in the studies performed in the first tier, no studies from the second or third tier need to be carried out.
The estimated timeline to complete an evaluation of a Novel Food in Singapore is said to be 3 – 6 months. During the interview however, SFA staff indicated this to be “slightly optimistic”. For the time being, the SFA has not yet put down any requirements regarding procedural aspects of a Novel Food application; this is still in the works. What struck me most during the interview is the informal and cooperative approach of the SFA. They seem to offer their assistance as a service rather than that they position themselves as rigid safety assessors. Also, they much encourage companies to consult SFA early in their product development process (referred to as “early-stage engagement”). This will enable mutual understanding of the production process of the cultured meat product at stake, as well as the applicable safety requirements. This may subsequently enable companies to make deliberate choices in their manufacturing setup. All of this is quite different in the EU, where interactions with EFSA is highly regulated and where detailed procedural regulations for submissions are in place, amongst others in view of protection of transparency in the safety evaluation process. Also, based on the Union studies database, it will be public what studies form the backbone of the safety evaluation for the Novel Food at stake.
Confidentiality vs. transparency
The notion of transparency was not mentioned once during my interview with the SFA. Instead, it was said that all information submitted during the application process is confidential. This may be advantageous for companies who want to make it quickly to the market. In the long run, and especially if authorisation of Novel Foods by the SFA will operate as a steppingstone for access of other Asian markets, I expect the need for a similar system as in place in the EU will arise.
Can cultured meat actually be called meat in Singapore? This may seem to be a no-brainer, but this is a highly debated question in the EU, where also the use of typical dairy names for plant-based alternatives is prohibited. The designation “meat” for cultured meat products in the EU may be limited based on the Hygiene Regulation, that reserves the name of “meat” for “edible parts” of specific animals, such as beef and pork. Now that cultivated cells (or even stem-cells) may not necessarily qualify as such edible parts, this issue still needs to be resolved. When marketing cultured meat products, the SFA does not oppose the designation of “meat”, provided that it is accompanied by a qualifier, for example cultured meat. “Clean” meat will however be a no-go, as it might have negative connotations for traditional meat. The proposed solution here seems appropriate to me to adequately inform the consumer what type of product is offered for sale and sufficient to prevent any misleading. Since that is also the cornerstone of EU food information law, I would very much advocate a similar solution to apply in the EU.
Authorisation of a Novel Food such as cultured meat takes place in a relatively informal and accelerated, yet science-based way in Singapore. It is therefore not surprising that the world’s first cultured meat product obtained regulatory clearance there. For now, we have not seen any applications being submitted in any other territory, not in the US, not in the EU and not even in Israel, where an important population of cultured meat companies is present. In order to see which regulatory approval procedure is most robust and flexible, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Sure thing however is that companies obtaining regulatory approval in Singapore will not want to limit their offerings to this small territory, but expand to others as well. In my view, mutual approval proceedings could beneficially influence each other, as data generated or approvals obtained in the one proceedings, could be used in the other. In terms of processing Novel Foods applications, I could only wish EFSA takes inspiration from the collaborative approach the SFA seems to take.
The world of food is changing at a rapid pace – alternative proteins becoming a new reality. Examples are products using microbial fermentation or cellular agriculture in their production process. If you are a company wanting to market such a product in the EU, there is a good chance you require a prior market authorization as a regulated product, such as a novel food (NF) or a GMO. In that case, you need to get up to speed with the following four new ESFA guidance documents that will all apply as of 27 March 2021.
- Decision laying down the practical arrangements on pre-submission phase and public consultations
- Decision of EFSA’s executive director laying down practical arrangements concerning transparency and confidentiality
- Administrative guidance for the processing of applications for regulated products (update 2021)
- ESFA’s catalogue of support initiatives during the life-cycle of applications for regulated products (update 2021)
Document # 3 explains EFSA’s workflow in dealing with regulated products. It applies to applications for authorization of substances used in food and feed, food contact materials, NFs and GMO’s amongst others. The title of document # 4 is pretty self-explanatory. Examples of EFSA support initiatives range from general pre-submission and renewal advice to admin support to SMEs on applications and from EFSA guidance documents and scientific opinions to roundtables with industry associations.
Documents # 1 and 2 contain practical arrangements for companies that intend submitting scientific evidence regarding products requiring an EFSA evaluation. The full list of products is enumerated at the end of this post.* From a legal point of view, these guidelines implement the changes introduced in the General Food Law Regulation by the Transparency Regulation. We already covered the consequences of this Regulation in a previous blogpost, which in particular focuses on the relation between transparency and confidentiality.
This blogpost provides more detailed information on two topics representing a real change in the situation before 27 March, notably the general pre-submission advice and the notification of studies. To make this blogpost more concrete, it will target one specific category of regulated products within EFSA’s remit, notably NFs. For a reason. Currently, a great number of EU food companies active in the field of cultured meat are preparing their novel food applications. These companies need to be aware of these changes in the current regulatory framework.
General pre-submission advice (GPSA)
The GPSA to be provided by EFSA Staff concerns the rules applicable to and the content required for the NF application prior to its submission. It explicitly does not cover the design of the studies to be submitted. Aspects going beyond information available in any guidance documents are out of scope of pre-submission advice. Examples are questions regarding hypotheses to be tested or risk management. Furthermore, said staff shall not be involved in any preparatory scientific or technical work that is (in)directly of relevance for the NF application to be made. Also, the advice given shall be without prejudice and non-committal as to any subsequent assessment by EFSA (and the Member States via the PAFF Committee).
Prior to obtaining any GPSA, the applicant (and / or its representative) must register in the EFSA system supporting pre-submission activities and it must also request a pre-application ID. The pre-submission request can be introduced at any time before submitting a NF application. The European Commission nevertheless recommends submitting a request at least six months before introduction of the intended NF application.
The request for pre-submission advice shall be made in a dedicated form (“general pre-submission advice form”) made available by EFSA and a link should be made to the pre-application ID. Subsequently the applicant for an authorisation of a NF should provide all necessary information regarding the application, including a list of exhaustive questions. A maximum of two requests may be submitted under the same pre-application ID.
After a check that the questions asked are not out of scope, the applicant will be informed within 15 working days from the receipt of the advice form whether the submitted request is accepted or rejected. Companies expecting face-to-face meetings with EFSA need to know this will not happen automatically. Where possible, EFSA shall address the queries in writing. However, if EFSA considers that a discussion with the applicant might be useful to clarify certain aspects of the request, a meeting shall be organised. You then do not need to travel to Parma or elsewhere, as such meeting shall be conducted preferably by telco or webco. Only in exceptional cases a live meeting shall take place.
Any requests to be delt with in writing shall be answered within 15 working days after acceptance of the request. Any meeting to be set up shall be organised within 20 working days after acceptance of the request. EFSA shall draft a summary of the questions asked and not only send this to the applicant, but it will also publish it after the novel food application at stake has been considered admissible or valid.
Notification of studies
For transparency purposes, EFSA has established a database of studies commissioned or carried out by business operators to support any application requiring any type of scientific output, including a scientific opinion. The obligations to submit information on studies applies to both (A) potential applicants (i) having commissioned to a lab or external testing facility or (ii) carrying out such studies in in-house testing facilities and (B) to the labs or testing facilities carrying out such studies. Don’t be fooled by the wording “studies carried out” in relation to the notification required. In fact, timing is of the essence here, as all study notifications need to be submitted before the actual starting date of the study.
There may be justified justifications for not timely notifying studies. However, if EFSA does not consider the justifications provided by an applicant valid, the application needs to be re-submitted. As a consequence, the assessment of the validity of the application shall commence only six months after the notification of the studies according to the Transparency Regulation. The EFSA pre-submission guidance states the assessment of a re-submitted application shall commence 6 months after the re-submission of the application. This is not exactly the same, but it is clear that not complying with the studies notification requirement can be a serious showstopper, as a NF application supported by not-notified studies is not valid.
What exactly needs to be notified in the EFSA studies database? First of all, the study title, as well as an English translation thereof if the original title is not in English. Secondly, the applicant needs to be identified, after having first registered in the EFSA system for pre-submission activities. Thirdly the planned study starting and completion date, the laboratory where the study shall be carried out, as well as the study scope. In order to detail the study scope, the applicant should provide information on the intended study area (e.g. cultured meat), the study type (e.g. genotoxicity in vitro study) and the study objective (e.g. demonstrate that cultured meat does not pose any safety risks at the anticipated level of intake). The data entered can be modified, for instance if a study is delayed, the anticipated completion date can be aligned thereto. Information previously entered into the study database can also be withdrawn, but the applicant needs to provide a valid justification for that purpose. In the absence thereof, the same consequences will apply as when the applicant notifies its studies too late.
Once EFSA has received a valid or admissible application for a NF authorization, it shall publish this in order to launch the consultation of third parties on the application submitted. The rationale behind is that EFSA needs to have access to all relevant scientific data and studies available on the subject matter regarding the application at stake. Any communications on such consultation shall be published at EFSA’s website and shall remain open for three weeks, unless specified otherwise in sectoral Union law. For applicants, it is good to know that this public consultation in principle does not result in long delays. Upon closure of the public consultation, EFSA shall make publicly available all comments received. This will be done simultaneously with the publication of EFSA’s scientific output, which will address all relevant comments received.
What learnings can be drawn from the new EFSA Guidance documents? In the first place, that designing a safety evaluation strategy for a regulated product such as a NF has become even more important. By deciding as early stage as possible, what studies will be required to demonstrate the safety of your product, the chances that you can timely notify these studies in the EFSA study database shall increase. In this way, unnecessary delays in the appraisal of your application can be prevented. In the second place, it remains to be seen how helpful EFSA pre-submission advice will be, as it will be purely procedural and not material at all. At the same time, EFSA launched the new initiative of dedicated support for SME’s. Potentially, combination of the two reveals to be helpful.
*Products subject to transparency requirements and requiring an EFSA evaluation are the following:
- GMO’s (captured by both Directive 2001/18 and Regulation 1829/2003)
- Additives in animal nutrition
- Smoke flavouring used on food
- Food contact materials
- Food additives, enzymes and flavourings
- Plant protection materials
- Novel Foods
A number of legal developments in the field of cannabidiol (CBD) took place in the last few months of the previous year. For example, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in November that a member state cannot prohibit the marketing of CBD that was lawfully manufactured and marketed in another member state. Less than a month later, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted on six recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the reclassification of cannabis in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (Single Convention). In practice, there appears to be confusion about the meaning of these developments for CBD as a food product. This confusion seems to arise from the interaction between food and opium legislation, both of which are applicable to this product. This article aims to provide clarity on these latest developments.
CBD is not a narcotic according to the ECJ
On 19 November 2020, the ECJ ruled, in summary, that the free movement of goods entails that when CBD is lawfully manufactured and marketed in one member state, it may, in principle, also be marketed in another member state. This is, however, different when Article 36 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) justifies an exception to the free movement of goods, such as for the protection of health and life of humans. Yet, the trade restricting or prohibiting measure must in such a case be appropriate for securing the attainment of the objective pursued (the protection of health and life of humans) and must not go beyond what is necessary in order to attain it. To reach the aforementioned conclusion, the preliminary question had to be answered whether CBD falls within the scope of the free movement of goods. This principle does namely not apply to narcotics, which are prohibited throughout the Union (with the exception of strictly controlled trade for use for medical and scientific purposes). Based on the Single Convention and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the ECJ reasoned that CBD is subject the free movement of goods. Both conventions codify internationally applicable control measures to ensure the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances for medical and scientific purposes and to prevent them from entering illicit channels. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances regulates psychoactive substances, whether natural or synthetic, and natural products listed in the schedules to the Convention, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD is not included. The Single Convention applies, inter alia, to cannabis (defined as “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops) from which the resin has not been extracted, by whatever name they may be designated”). Although a literal interpretation of the above provision would lead to the conclusion that CBD (not obtained from the seeds and leaves of the cannabis plant) falls within the definition of cannabis, such an interpretation is not consistent with the purpose of the Single Convention, namely protecting the health and welfare of mankind. Indeed, according to the current state of scientific knowledge, CBD is not a psychoactive substance.
UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs reclassifies cannabis
Shortly after the ECJ ruling regarding, among others, the Single Convention, the CND put six WHO recommendations to vote on 2 December 2020. This voting session would have taken place earlier, though had been postponed so that the voting countries had more time to study the matter and to determine their position. The WHO recommendations dealt with the reclassification, removal and addition of cannabis (substances) in the various schedules (Schedule I, II, III and IV) to the Single Convention. These four schedules represent four categories of narcotics and each category has its own rules. The substances in Schedule VI are controlled most strictly; they are considered dangerous without relevant medicinal applications. Schedule I concerns the second most strictly controlled category. The substances in this Schedule are subject to a level of control that prevents harm caused by their use while not hindering access and research and development for medical use. The lightest criteria apply to Schedule II and III. For example, Schedule II lists substances normally used for medicinal purposes and with a low risk of abuse.
Bedrocan (currently the sole supplier of medicinal cannabis to the Dutch government) has summarized these six WHO recommendations as follows:
- Extracts and tinctures are removed from Schedule I.
- THC (dronabinol) is added to Schedule I under the category Cannabis & Resin. Subsequently, THC is removed from Schedule II of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
- THC isomers are added to Schedule I under the category Cannabis & Resin. Subsequently, THC isomer is removed from the Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
- Pure CBD and CBD preparations with maximum 0.2 % THC are not included in the international conventions on controlling drugs.
- If they comply with certain criteria, pharmaceutical preparations that contain delta-9-THC should be added to Schedule III, recognizing the unlikelihood of abuse and for which a number of exemptions apply.
- Cannabis and cannabis resin are removed from Schedule IV, the category reserved for the most dangerous substances.
In the end, only the recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV (i.e., recommendation 6) was approved, on the grounds that there are also positive aspects to cannabis. However, this does not mean that cannabis can now be freely traded. Cannabis is still included in Schedule I and is therefore in principle a prohibited substance. Having said that, research and product development for medical purposes is permitted if a country so desires. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Opium Act already allowed for this under certain conditions. The reclassification of cannabis is therefore more symbolic in nature than that it brings about practical changes.
The recommendation to explicitly exclude CBD from the scope of the Single Convention has thus been rejected. The industry considers this a missed opportunity to clarify the (legal) status of CBD with traces of THC. This rejection was on the other hand in line with the viewpoint of the European Commission, which advised its member states that sit on the CND (i.e. Belgium, Germany, France, Hungary, Italy, Croatia, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Spain, Czech Republic and Sweden) to vote against this recommendation since more research would be needed. For example, the European Commission takes the position that the proposed THC limit of 0.2 % is not sufficiently supported by scientific evidence. The WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) notes in this regard that medicines without psychoactive effects that are produced as preparations from the cannabis plant will contain traces of THC and provides the example of the CBD preparation Epidiolex as approved for the treatment of childhood-onset epilepsy, which contains no more than 0.15 % THC by weight. At the same time, WHO ECDD recognizes that it may be difficult for some countries to conduct chemical analyses of THC with an accuracy of 0.15%. Hence, it recommends the limit of 0.2 % THC. This limit is already known to food companies from the so-called Novel Food Catalogue of the European Commission, which recalls that in the EU, the cultivation of Cannabis sativa L. varieties is permitted provided they are registered in the EU’s ‘Common Catalogue of Varieties of Agricultural Plant Species’ and the THC content does not exceed 0.2 % (w/w). This does, however, not necessarily mean that products derived from such cannabis varieties can be freely marketed as food.
CBD as food product
With respect to cannabis extracts such as CBD, as well as its synthetic equivalent, no history of safe use has been demonstrated. As a result, these products qualify as novel foods and can only be placed on the EU market after approval by the European Commission. Several food companies such as the Swiss company Cibdol AG, Chanelle McCoy CBD LTD from Ireland and the Czech CBDepot, have already applied for the required novel food authorization. However, the assessment of the relevant dossiers has been paused, presumably because it was still unclear whether CBD qualified as a psychotropic substance and narcotic. Such a qualification would exclude use as a foodstuff. Thanks to the ECJ ruling, this has now been clarified, on the basis of which the European Commission will likely resume the evaluation of the various applications for CBD as a novel food.
CBD under the Dutch Opium Act
A potential approval of CBD as a novel food does, however, not automatically mean that CBD can be sold in the EU without any (legal) obstacles. The Novel Food Catalogue makes this reservation explicit by indicating that specific national legislation, other than food legislation, may restrict the placing on the market of a cannabis product as a food. In practice, it will in particular come down to opium legislation.
Although the ECJ clarified that CBD is not a narcotic, it did not specify how pure CBD must be to fall outside the scope of the Single Convention and to be freely traded. The respective rejected WHO recommendation referred to a THC content of up to 0.2 %. In the Netherlands is, however, only a contamination level of at most 0.05 % allowed. This impurity can be caused by traces of THC, but also by the presence of other cannabinoids. Only pure CBD, i.e. with a purity level of 99.95 %, falls outside the scope of the Dutch Opium Act. Having said that, there is another catch: although the Dutch Opium Act does not cover CBD, this Act is applicable to the cannabis plant (or its parts) from which the CBD is extracted. The production of (natural) CBD can therefore not take place in the Netherlands.
Recent developments in the field of CBD have clarified that CBD is not a narcotic and therefore does not fall under the Single Convention. Food businesses are nevertheless warned to not yet start celebrating. If they want to market CBD as a food, they will still have to go through the novel food procedure, or market a product in accordance with the terms of an already approved CBD product. The latter is possible insofar data protection does not prevent this. Besides this, the purity level of CBD is decisive to stay away from opium legislation. There is still no international agreement on what this level should be. Food businesses operating in different member states are therefore advised to seek local advice when marketing CBD in the EU.
Last week I received a call from an entrepreneur who wanted to know what requirements he had to bear in mind when distributing food supplements from Finland to other EU Member States. I told him about the language requirements for mandatory food information. I also informed him that the allowed level of vitamins and minerals could differ from Member State to Member State. Furthermore, in some countries a so-called notification system for market access has been put in place, whereas in others, no such system applies. Finally, I informed him that there is no harmonised approach on prohibited substances in the EU either. In fact, he was quite surprised to learn about all this, as he thought food supplements to be subject to the principle of free circulation of goods in the internal market. Is not that correct? Yes, it is. However, as follows from the above, a number of exceptions apply to this principle. This blogpost explains what is being done to achieve more harmonisation in the food supplements market.
Food supplements: what are they in fact and what happens in practice?
According to the Food Supplements Directive, food supplements are meant to supplement the normal diet. They are concentrated sources of nutrients or other substances having a nutritional or physiological effect that are mostly sold in the form of pills or powders. While nutrients are vitamins and/or minerals, such other substances are, for example, amino acids, glucosamine or certain substances contained in herbs or plants. What we see in practice, is that more and more consumers use food supplements not only to supplement their diet, but for a targeted health effect. Increasing concentration or improving sport achievements are two examples thereof. Another trend is that a broad number of food supplements is nowadays offered for sale online. As many of them come with striking health claims, it is not always sufficiently clear for consumers what they are actually buying. In these COVID-times, many supplements claimed for example to boost the immune system without meeting the specific requirements for such claim. This may create a dangerous situation if and when dangerous substances are involved.
Food supplements: a boosting market but not without risks
The market of food supplements in the Netherlands alone was valued in 2019 by Neprofarm at € 143 million. In that same year, the Netherlands pharmacovigilance centre Lareb received 165 notifications of adverse reactions regarding food supplements. Even worse, the Netherlands Intoxications Information Centre NVIC reported 891 cases of intoxications through the use of food supplements in 2019. These adverse effects or intoxications may result in stomach complaints, headaches or dizziness, but also in more severe conditions such as hart complaints or even cerebral haemorrhage. It follows from inspection results of the Dutch Food Safety Authority NVWA that only 45 % of the food business operators comply with all applicable food safety requirements. Due to the lack of regulatory harmonisation in this field and the open norm laid down in the General Food Law Regulation (article 14 thereof states “food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe”), this makes effective enforcement of food safety for food supplement a complex task.
Dutch initiatives aimed at more EU harmonization for food supplements
In an ideal world, dangerous substances are prohibited on an EU-wide basis. Currently, an initiative is ongoing to add substances to the list of unsafe substances under the Fortification Directive. Furthermore, in February 2020, an initiative was launched by the enforcement authorities of 18 Member States including those of the Netherlands, to draft a joint list of prohibited substances for food supplements. Since both initiatives are not expected to materialize overnight, the Dutch Health Minister has decided, in cooperation with the Dutch Food Safety Authority and the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board CBG amongst others, to draft a national list of unsafe substances. This list will be based on risk evaluations pertaining thereto and the aim is to give this list a statutory basis, by integrating it in the Dutch Commodities Act (“Warenwet”). Furthermore, the Dutch Food Safety Authority has designed a targeted approach of sales of food supplements via the internet. Based on the Dutch polder tradition, this approach is consensus-based, aiming to agree with online marketplaces that they remove from their offerings any food supplements containing prohibited substances. Also, the Dutch Health Minister oversees that the communications to consumers on food supplements by a number of channels, such as the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (“Voedingscentrum”), the Health Inspectorate IGJ and the National Institute for Public Health RIVM, provides proper risk information. Finally, the Health Minister considers introducing a system of prior notification and some level of safety evaluation into the Netherlands as well.
Are these initiatives a good thing or a bad thing?
In order to enhance consumer safety, the above initiatives are certainly a good thing. For food business operators however, they may entail further obstacles to the free circulation of goods in the internal market. Based on the new Official Controls Regulation, enforcement authorities are allowed to do “mystery shopping”, i.e. ordering food supplements without identifying themselves. Once the Dutch national list of dangerous substances will have a statutory basis, the Dutch Food Safety Authority could do online test purchases with EU food business operators that may not be aware of such list. If their products are not in line therewith, they are subject to enforcement measures. As to the intended introduction of the notification requirement of food supplements in the Dutch market, this will certainly make market access less smooth.
On the other hand, in a number of EU countries, such as Belgium and France, a system of prior notification for food supplements is already in place. In practice, we see this can operate as a “safety seal”, meaning that supplements that were allowed on those markets, potentially earn more easily market access in other Member States as well. Furthermore, a new tool is available to food business operators since the new Regulation on mutual recognition became applicable in April 2020. Article 4 thereof offers the possibility to draw up a voluntary declaration to demonstrate to the competent authorities of other Member States that a food product is lawfully marketed, for instance in the Netherlands. The competent authorities in the Member State of destination can only oppose the further marketing thereof based on legitimate public interest, for instance public health. I expect this to be as useful tool for the further circulation of food supplements in the internal market.
Finally, I expect the Dutch national list of unsafe and hence prohibited substances for food supplements also to provide some more clarity in this field, provided that it will also be easily accessible to food business operators abroad. When these food business operators indeed duly inform themselves, this list could facilitate the successful EU-wide launch of food supplements, with less unclarity pre-launch and less surprises after launch. Which is supposed to be a good thing.
The information shared in this blogpost stems from a letter of the Dutch Health Minister to the Dutch House of representatives dated 14 December 2020, which can be viewed here (in Dutch only).
Since 1 September 2020, the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) has been given the power to publish certain inspection results (including identification details of the inspected FBO) faster than before. Prior to that date, the legal basis for disclosure could primarily be found in article 8 of the Dutch Freedom of Information Act (in Dutch: Wet openbaarheid van bestuur). This act creates a duty for the administrative body concerned, for example the NVWA, to publicly provide information when this is in the interest of good and democratic governance. However, article 10 of the Freedom of Information Act requires an individual balancing of interests in order to avoid disproportionate disadvantage for the parties involved as a result of the publication. It also prohibits disclosure of certain sensitive information, such as company and manufacturing data that has been confidentially communicated to the government. This blog post explains what has changed since 1 September 2020, which FBOs are affected and what arguments they can use to prevent disclosure.
Additional basis of disclosure as of 1 September 2020
As of 1 September 2020, the NVWA is additionally bound by the Decree on the Disclosure of Supervision and Implementation Data under the Health and Youth Act (in Dutch: Besluit openbaarmaking toezicht- en uitvoeringsgegevens Gezondheidswet en Jeugdwet, hereinafter: Decree on Disclosure), as further elaborated in the Policy Rule on Active Disclosure of Inspection Data by the NVWA (in Dutch: Beleidsregel omtrent actieve openbaarmaking van inspectiegegevens door de NVWA, hereinafter: Policy Rule on Disclosure). This power of disclosure is based on article 44 of the Dutch Health Act (in Dutch: Gezondheidswet). Disclosure in accordance with the Decree on Disclosure does not require the balancing of interests: disclosure of information will simply take place when indicated in the relevant annex to the Decree on Disclosure. Companies that wish to prevent publication of information related to their business will therefore have to invoke factual criteria, such as that the information to be disclosed contains incorrect information or concerns information that is excluded from disclosure in Article 44(5) of the Health Act.
Required actions when companies disagree with disclosure
The publication of information as based on the Decree on Disclosure has consequences for the way affected companies can stand up to prevent disclosure and the speed with which they will need to object. Where the Freedom of Information Act offers affected companies the possibility to share their opinion (in Dutch: zienswijze) in reaction to the administrative body’s intention to disclose the information in question, this possibility does not exist under the Decree on Disclosure. If and when an affected company does not agree with disclosure on the basis of the latter decree, this company has two weeks to object to the respective administrative body’s intention of disclosure and needs to seek interim relief measures within this time frame in order to actually suspend the disclosure. In addition, under the Decree on Disclosure companies are provided the option to write a short response that will be published together with the information subject to disclosure. In this way, affected companies are given the opportunity to provide the outside world with a substantive (but very summary) response to the information to be made public. The Policy Rule on Disclosure in fact also grants this right of response to information disclosed by the NVWA under the Freedom of Information Act.
Relevant for all FBOs?
The aforementioned additional legal basis for disclosure by the NVWA applies for the time being to a limited number of supervisory areas only, namely the inspection results of the NVWA with regard to (i) fish auctions, (ii) the catering industry, and (iii) project-based studies into the safety of goods other than food and beverages. These areas may be expanded in the future, according to the explanatory notes to the Decree on Disclosure.
However, for companies with so-called borderline products that navigate between different regulatory regimes, it is relevant to know that Dutch Health and Youth Care Inspectorate (IGJ) has broader powers to actively disclose inspection results under the Decree on Disclosure. Since 1 February 2019, the IGJ has already been publishing information on the basis of this decree regarding, amongst other, compliance with the Dutch Medicines Act (in Dutch: Geneesmiddelenwet). This means that when the IGJ takes enforcement measures against a FBO handling food supplements or other foodstuffs that qualify as (unregistered) medicines, it may be obliged to make public the respective supervisory information. The same applies to enforcement under the Dutch Medical Devices Act (in Dutch: Wet op de medische hulpmiddelen) – think diet preparations – and the Opium Act (in Dutch: Opiumwet) – think CBD and other cannabis products.
An example: melatonin-containing foodstuff labeled as a medicine
An example of a FBO that was faced with disclosure in accordance with the Decree on Disclosure by the IGJ concerns a company involved in melatonin-containing products. The IGJ intended to publish an inspection report on these products, from which it would follow that the products in question qualify as medicines and that the FBO concerned would therefore illegally place them on the market (namely without the required licenses under the Medicines Act). The FBO at stake applied for a preliminary injunction suspending the publication decree. On 8 July 2020, the preliminary relief judge rendered a judgment in this case.
Possible factual criteria to prevent naming & shaming
Although disclosure under the Decree on Disclosure is obligatory and disclosure decisions thus do not require the balancing of interests, the above-mentioned melatonin case gives good insights into the factual criteria that can nevertheless be invoked to prevent disclosure. In this case, the respective FBO brought forward the following arguments.
The respective inspection report excluded from disclosure
Article 3.1(a) of Part II of the Annex to the Decree on Disclosure excludes certain supervisory information from disclosure, including the results of inspections and investigations established as a result of a notification by a third party. The FBO at stake (hereinafter: “Applicant’) takes the position that the present inspection report was initiated as a result of a notification or enforcement request by a competitor. This would mean that the respective inspection report must not be made public.
The preliminary relief judge cannot agree with this position in the present case and rules that the inspection report is clearly related to an earlier letter from the IGJ to the applicant in which it announced the intensification of supervision of melatonin-containing products. Moreover, the case file was silent on a notification or enforcement request by a competitor.
The preliminary relief judge additionally states that it agrees with the IGJ’s viewpoint that the inspection report does not concern a penalty report (the report was drafted within the context of supervision and only indicates that Applicant will be informed about the to be imposed enforcement measure by separate notice). The fact that Applicant had earlier received a written warning for violation of the Medicines Act has no influence on this. The inspection report is therefore neither excluded from publication pursuant to article 3.1(a)(ii) of Part II of the Annex to the Decree on Disclosure, which makes an exception for “results of inspections and investigations that form the basis of decisions to impose an administrative fine”.
Disclosure in violation of the goal of the Health Law: outdated scientific foundation conclusions IGJ
The purpose of disclosure under the Health Act, in the wording of article 44(1) of that act, is to promote compliance with the regulations, to provide the public with insight into the way in which supervision and implementation of the Decree on Disclosure is carried out and into the results of those operations. Pursuant to Article 44a(9) of the Health Act, information should not be made public where this is or may violate aforementioned purpose of disclosure. Applicant takes the position that publication of the present inspection report does not contribute to improved protection of the public or to better information about the effects of melatonin, as a result of which the report should not be disclosed. More specifically, the applicant complains that the report (i) contains obvious errors and inaccuracies, (ii) gives the impression that it concerns a penalty decision, and (iii) is based on an incorrectly used framework to determine whether the qualification of a medicine is met.
The preliminary relief judge first of all notes that the fact that Applicant does not agree with the conclusions of the inspection report does not mean that the report therefore contains obvious inaccuracies. The preliminary relief judge further summarizes Applicant’s position as follows: (i) the IGJ wrongly took a daily dosage of 0.3 mg melatonin to determine the borderline between foodstuff and medicines; (ii) in doing so, the IGJ did not demonstrate that products with a daily dose of 0.3 mg melatonin actually acts as a medicine; (iii) moreover, the product reviews refer to outdated scientific publications (a more recent study by one of the authors thereof as well as more recent EFSA reports have not been included in the inspection report), whereas the current state of scientific knowledge must be taken into account according to established case-law. For these reasons, the preliminary relief judge agreed with Applicant that the IGJ has not made it sufficiently clear that from a daily dose of melatonin of 0.3 mg or more a ‘significant and beneficial effect on various physiological functions of the body’ occurs scientifically – according to the current state of scientific knowledge – and that products with a daily dose of melatonin of 0.3 mg or more act as a medicine”. Having said that, the preliminary relief judge did not accept Applicant’s statement that disclosure is contrary to the purpose of disclosure under the Health Act. Instead, the preliminary relief judge sought to comply with the so-called principles of sounds administration (in Dutch: algemene beginselen van behoorlijk bestuur) and ruled that the disclosure decision was not diligently prepared and insufficiently substantiated.
Applicant claims that the inspection report contains various inaccuracies, including the incorrect information that Applicant would produce melatonin itself. Applicant had already raised these inaccuracies in her response to the draft version of the report, but this had not resulted into adjustments in the final, to be published version of the report. The preliminary relief judge ruled on this matter that the IGJ should further investigate Applicant’s concerns and should amend the report where relevant. After all, the content of the report must be correct and diligently compiled. The mere fact that Applicant was given the opportunity to respond to the draft version of the report and that the IGJ responded to this in its decision to disclose the report does not mean that this requirement is met.
Violation of article 8 ECHR: disclosure has a major impact on Applicant’s image
Applicant claims that the planned disclosure will have a major impact on Applicant’s image and that of the natural person involved in the company. This is in violation of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) concerning the right to respect for private and family life. The Explanatory Memorandum to the Amendment to the Health and the Youth Care Act (in Dutch: Memorie van Toelichting op de Wijziging van de Gezondheidswet en de Wet op de Jeugdzorg) deals with this in detail. It emphasizes that the disclosure of inspection data does normally not constitute an interference with private life, because the data normally relates to legal persons and not to natural persons. The aforementioned Explanatory Memorandum therefore concludes that article 8 ECHR does not preclude disclosure on the grounds of the Health Act. Nevertheless, the court has at all times the competence to review a disclosure decision in the light of that article, in which case it will in fact have to balance the interests involved. In the present case, preliminary relief judge sees however no reason to assume a violation of article 8 ECHR.
Although the above shows that the preliminary relief judge in the respective melatonin case does not agree with all arguments put forward by Applicant, the request for suspension of publication of the contested inspection report was nevertheless granted thanks to factual criteria that were sufficiently substantiated. In particular the (implicit) argument that the conclusions in the inspection report lack a sufficient factual basis affects the essence of the information to be disclosed.
Rapid action is required to prevent active disclosure of inspection results under the Decree on Disclosure as these will usually be published after two weeks. This is not only relevant for FBOs active in the supervisory areas of the NVWA as designated in the Decree on Disclosure, but also for FBOs that operate at the interface of legal regimes under the supervision of the IGJ. To suspend disclosure, interim relief proceedings will have to be instituted as the Decree on Disclosure no longer provides for the possibility of submitting an opinion prior to publication. Moreover, affected companies cannot invoke the argument of suffering a disproportionate disadvantage as a result of the publication. Publication on the basis of the Decree on Disclosure is namely not subject to an individual balancing of interests (apart from an assessment on the basis of article 8 ECHR, insofar relevant). Although the arguments that companies can bring forward to prevent publication are therefore more limited than in the case of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, this does not mean that companies cannot successfully object an intention of disclosure. The melatonin case mentioned above is an example of this: conclusions that are not based on most recent science may not be published without adequate justification. Also, facts that are alleged to be incorrect should be further investigated before disclosure.
What can we learn from the Impossible vs. Incredible case in the Netherlands?
At the end May this year, the Court of The Hague rendered a remarkable judgment: at the request of Impossible Foods, Nestlé was banned from launching its INCREDIBLE BURGER in the EU. How is this possible? Impossible Foods is not even on the market in the EU yet. This article examines the court’s considerations and discusses the lessons that can be learnt by companies wishing to enter the EU market with meat substitutes.
Impossible Foods has been marketing its vegetable burger under the brand IMPOSSIBLE BURGER in the US since 2016. It also aims entering the EU market, but is still awaiting a marketing authorisation under the GMO Regulation. The burger of Impossible Foods contains genetically modified heme, which makes such authorisation necessary. Nestlé is seeking to meet the demand for more plant-based products as well and therefore also developed a plant-based burger. Nestlé had announced at the end of 2018 that it would market this product under the name INCREDIBLE BURGER. After Impossible Foods warned that this name would violate its trademark rights vested in IMPOSSIBLE BURGER, Nestlé decided to introduce its burger under the name AWESOME BURGER in the US. In the EU, however, Nestlé continued the original plan and marketed its vegetable burger under the name INCREDIBLE BURGER as of February 2019. Meanwhile, Impossible Foods had obtained a registration of its EU trademark IMPOSSIBLE BURGER. Nestlé filed a so-called nullity action against this mark with the EUIPO (the European Union Intellectual Property Office). According to Nestlé, this trademark is insufficiently distinctive, which is one of the requirements to obtain a valid trademark. In the meantime, however, Impossible Foods had initiated a court case before the District Court of The Hague in the Netherlands. In this case, Impossible Foods sued ten Nestlé companies, claiming that these should be prohibited from further use of the trademark INCREDIBLE BURGER in the EU. As of that moment quite some procedural spaghetti evolved, which I will explain below.
The case concerned regular proceedings on the merits, which can easily take a year and a half before any judgment being made. Of course, this would be too long to prevent the intended market introduction of the INCREDIBLE BURGER. Impossible Foods had therefore made use of the possibility to apply for an interim injunction during these main proceedings. Nestlé obviously opposed such interim injunction. In essence, Nestlé argued that the court in The Hague should refrain from ruling as long as the EUIPO in Alicante had not decided whether Impossible Foods has a valid trademark at all. Nestlé’s application for a stay of proceedings related to both the proceedings on the merits and to the interim injunction. In the main proceedings, that request was granted in order to prevent any conflicting rulings in the EU regarding the same trademark. With regard to the interim injunction, that request was rejected because a trademark proprietor must always be able to protect its trademark rights. Moreover, based on the Regulation on the Union Trademark and two European treaties, the court in The Hague declared itself competent to hear Impossible Foods’ claim in respect of all ten defendants. The fact that these proceedings had not been initiated in the country where Nestlé has the largest market share within the EU (Germany), nor in the country where Nestlé’s parent company is established (Switzerland), did not change this.
IMPOSSIBLE BURGER complies as a brand
Impossible Foods’ claim for an injunction was based on trademark infringement. Before the court could assess this claim, Nestlé’s defences had to be assessed first. The court did not agree with Nestlé’s assertion that IMPOSSIBLE BURGER for meat substitutes is exclusively descriptive. On the basis of this name, the average consumer does not automatically conclude that this is a vegetarian burger that resembles meat as much as possible. In fact, “impossible” is anti-descriptive for a burger that does exist. On the same grounds, the court ruled that IMPOSSIBLE BURGER does not lack any distinctive character for meat substitutes. Also, the use of this trademark did not have a purely laudatory message. IMPOSSIBLE BURGER can indeed fulfil a designation of origin function as a trademark, which is further enhanced by the relationship with the name of the trademark owner. IMPOSSIBLE BURGER therefore qualifies as a trademark, at least in the context of the interim relief in the present case. The EUIPO may decide otherwise in due course, which will influence the decision of the court in the proceedings on the merits.
Preconditions for trademark infringement
Trademark infringement exists, inter alia, if there is a likelihood of confusion between two trademarks. In order to assess this, it needs to be examined whether there is similarity between the two trademarks visually, aurally and conceptually. Also relevant are (i) the degree of similarity between the goods for which the trademark is registered and for which the sign is used, (ii) the degree of distinctiveness of the trademark and (iii) the relevant public when assessing the likelihood of confusion. According to Nestlé, the relevant public in this case is in fact the general public, now that most people consume meat, fish and poultry or substitutes for these products. The judge agreed. He further ruled that the level of attention when purchasing such everyday consumer products is relatively low.
Likelihood of confusion deemed plausible
The judge ruled that visually there is a considerable degree of similarity between IMPOSSIBLE BURGER and INCREDIBLE BURGER. Mark and sign each have six syllables, the first word is constructed in the same way and the second word is identical. Phonetically, trademark and sign are to a certain extent similar according to the judge, although there is also a difference in this respect. Because of the identical number of syllables, the cadence is the same, but the second syllable clearly differs. There is only a low degree of conceptual similarity: “impossible” is simply something different than “incredible”. The judge thereby assumes that the average consumer of meat substitutes in the EU is able to grasp the meaning of these English words. Some conceptual similarity between the trademark and the sign lies in the fact that both raise a question: ‘What, then, is so impossible or incredible? Considering that both IMPOSSIBLE BURGER and INCREDIBLE BURGER are used for meat substitutes and it has been established that the level of attention paid to the purchase of such products is low, the court deems the risk of confusion plausible. Two aggravating facts contributed to this.
Firstly, even before the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER was on the market in the EU, actual confusion had taken place between the two products. Secondly, Impossible Foods had argued undisputedly that in the summer of 2018, negotiations had taken place between the parties about a possible cooperation. This would allegedly take the form of a licence granted by Impossible Foods to Nestlé to use the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER brand. In such a context, it is likely that exchanges of confidential information took place, whereas Nestlé had launched the INCREDIBLE BURGER during the ongoing negotiations. This creates the impression in court that Nestlé has chosen a deliberate strategy to frustrate the successful launch of the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER in the EU.
Prohibition action justified
Under these circumstances, the court ruled that the injunction sought was justified. Nestlé objected that such an injunction, even in the form of a temporary injunction for the duration of the main proceedings, would require it to ‘re-brand’ its product and destroy its current stock. This would in fact amount to definitive measures, which should only be taken in the proceedings on the merits. On the other hand, the court held that Nestlé’s market launch of the INCREDIBLE BURGER in February 2019 was actually undertaken at risk. It knew that, according to Impossible Foods, its brand was infringing the IMPOSSBLE FOODS brand and had nevertheless chosen to do so. The infringement action was therefore granted for the entire EU, with the exception of purely descriptive use (i.e. as part of an English-language sentence without any emphasis in font size or capital letters).
This is a far-reaching decision based on only convincing visual similarity between the mark and the sign. This is all the more so, now that the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is not yet on the market here. From that perspective, it is important to know that in an injunction based on a trademark right, it is not a requirement that that trademark is actually used. Such a requirement only applies five years after registration, failing which the unused trademark will be vulnerable to cancellation. Furthermore, in this case the (somewhat) limited similarity between the trademark and sign is amply compensated by the identity between the goods, i.e. meat substitutes. On top of this are the aggravating facts on the basis of which the court seems to rule that Nestlé brought this situation upon itself. Because of the unitary character of the Union trademark, this situation is not limited to the Netherlands, but Nestlé was imposed an EU-wide injunction.
Knowing just the rules is not enough
What can companies that want to introduce new meat substitutes or other alternative protein-based products on the EU market learn from this decision? In an earlier post at FoodHealthLegal, we informed about the possible names for alternative proteins-based products within the applicable regulatory framework. This showed that according to specific EU labelling rules and case law there are some restrictions in the choice of such name. For instance, the use of dairy names is not permitted for non-dairy products. Also, at Member State level there are sometimes restrictions based on so-called reserved designations. As such, ‘minced meat‘ may only be used for minced beef with a fat percentage of at least six percent in the Netherlands. This court decision shows that it is not enough to know the rules; knowledge of the market is also indispensable upon market introduction of a new meat replacement. Research this market and its players before introducing new innovative food products, not only in the home market but also in other possible markets. Investigate the availability of the intended product name and act in accordance with the outcome. This may take the form of an alternative name or a co-existence agreement with the company that markets a product with a similar name. This will avoid spending a fortune on re-branding and in the end it will prevent food waste.
Consumers nowadays tend to include more and more plant-based products into their diet. For instance, a study ordered by DuPont Nutrition established double digits of growth for non-dairy ice-cream, dairy and cheese during the year preceding June 2018. More recently, NPR published an overview demonstrating which products were most consumed during the corona crisis. Amongst these, plant-based meat alternatives and oat milk were the biggest hits, demonstrating over 200 and 300 % growth respectively. Plant-based alternatives for dairy and meat will be discussed during the Protein Summit of the Vitafoods Conference in Geneva. As you may know, this conference was shifted from May to early September. In anticipation thereof, a webinar on Protein and Protein Alternatives took place on 12 May. During this webinar, I covered the labeling and advertising of these products. This blogpost offers a recap of my contribution thereto, targeting those who are interested in this topic but could not assist.
Regulatory requirements for market access
Obviously, there are other relevant aspects for alternative protein-based products than labeling and advertising, such as the regulatory requirements for market access. For some products, like those based on certain algae or on isolates from mung beans, most likely an authorization under the Novel Food Regulation will be required. This implies that the applicant will have to put together a product dossier demonstrating the safety of the product and submit this to the European Commission. This certainly applies for cultured meat products, unless they incorporate GMO steps in their production process and / or end product. In such case, market authorization will have to be obtained on the basis of the GMO Directive and the GMO Regulation. These topics will be dealt with during the Conference in September, detailing the scientific, economic and practical implications thereof.
Relevant general labelling rules
A number of labeling rules are of relevance for any food product, including those based on alternative protein. In fact, the cornerstone of labeling law, embodied in the Regulation on Food Information to Consumers, is the prevention of misleading. This can be done in various ways, but it is of the essence that at all times any confusion about the characteristics of a product is avoided. During the webinar, I brought up the example of Mylk to clarify this. Obviously, this is not a conventional dairy product, but a plant-based product. Do you think any confusion about the nature and / or the composition of this product could arise?
This should be decided based on the so-called Teekanne decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). According to this decision, it is prohibited to give the impression (by means of an image or a description) that a particular ingredient is present in a product, whereas this is not the case and the consumer can only find out when reading the list of ingredients. When this test is applied to the product Mylk, I am of the opinion it shall pass. Firstly, consumers will most likely not expect conventional milk, because of the twist in the product name. Secondly, FOP it states “dairy-free”. Thirdly, most plant-based dairy products are not stored in the fridge in the supermarket. Lastly, from the list of ingredients it is apparent this product is based on coconut cream.
Sector specific dairy legislation
For the dairy sector, important guidance was provided by the Tofutown decision by the ECJ. As detailed in an earlier blog post, we learnt from this decision that – in short – it is prohibited to use dairy names, such as “Tofubutter”, “Pflanzenkäse” and “Veggiecheese” for non-dairy products. This can be explained by the fact the dairy market is highly regulated, meaning that any specific dairy product has its own product standard. This standard should be met when manufacturing and marketing the product at stake. During the webinar, I mentioned the product standard for milk, defined as “normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings without any addition thereto or extraction therefrom”. From this definition it follows why the use of the work milk in combination with a plant-based ingredient is, in principle, no longer allowed.
However, there are always exceptions to the rules, also in this case. These exceptions relate to so-called traditional use, like “coconut milk” (UK) and “lait d’amande” (France). Those exceptions are mentioned on a list drawn up by the European Commission. Furthermore, the word “milk” and designations used for milk products (e.g. cream, butter, yoghurt) can be used in association with one or more words designating certain composite products (famous example: “chocolate milk”). A condition precedent however is that milk is an essential part thereof, either in terms of quantity or for characterization of the product, and no constituent takes the place of milk.
Plant-based meat replacements
For these types of products, using (or not) the word “meat” is not so much an issue, because they are no conventional meat product. This issue is rather whether it is legally permitted to use certain meat product designations, such as “hamburger”, “sausage” and the like. In the US, we have seen so-called censorship bills in a great number of States. These are usually driven by the meat sector lobby, who fear unfair competition from their plant-based peers. There is fierce opposition against such censorship, amongst others from the Good Food Institute. Mid April, the GFI reported their lobby had been successful in Virginia, where the Governor vetoed label censorship.
In the EU, we have seen similar initiatives when the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament proposed a bill restricting the use of meat product names for meat alternatives. The status of this bill is yet undecided, as the current European Parliament that was inaugurated in 2019, did not yet vote on it. Fierce lobbying pro and con is however going on. We must therefore anticipate that if this bill turns into law, it will also result into restrictions of very popular terms. The alternatives for those popular terms are not so obvious yet: “lentil slices?” or “carrot tubes?”.
Please bear in mind that restrictions can also stem from national Member State laws based on reserved product designations. In the NL for instance, the name “minced meat” and “tartar” are such reserved product designations that can only be used for products meeting exactly the relevant legal specifications.
When discussing the advantages of new over conventional protein products, certain advertising standards should be taken into account. In the EU, one of the ways to avoid misleading regarding your alternative protein product is to not emphasize certain characteristics that your product does not have. In this context, I discussed in the webinar a commercial that was made for BECEL margarine (FLORA in UK) that was shown both in the Netherlands and in Belgium. The text stated “Plants are the new cows. They are outside in the field whole year long. They provide seeds, that are a source of omega-3, which is good for your heart. BECEL is 100 % plant-based and good for your heart.”
According to a complaint filed with the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (similar to Advertising Standards Authority in UK), the comparison made between plants and cows was misleading. Rationale: it was suggested that plants had a more positive effect on the environment than dairy products made from milk. The complaint was dismissed. The ACC considered that the commercial did not at all compare the advantages of plant-based products to the disadvantages of conventional dairy. In fact, it only stressed the positive health effects of BECEL, due to its plant-based ingredients. The commercial appeared an effective (and funny!) way of advertising alternative dairy products.
Alternative protein products are food products like any other, so make sure that when marketing these, you are up to speed with all applicable general labeling requirements. Furthermore, take into account any sector specific standards, like the ones that apply for dairy products. Also, please note that at Member State level, further restrictions on the use of particular product names may apply. Finally, when advertising these products, make sure to avoid any misleading and know the rules for comparative advertising. This will be of particular relevance, especially once further labeling standards will evolve at EU level as initiated by the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament. Stay tuned – we will.
Copyright image: Nanne Meulendijks – please contact the artist for any further use.
What would food be without packaging? And what does packaging mostly consist of? Of course: plastic! To date, only few other materials have proved as reliable for food packaging as plastic. At the same time, we know that plastic has many disadvantages for the environment. Read this blogpost to be informed on the most important initiatives of the food sector and on the legal tools of the European Commission in this field.
The visionary number of 2030
By 2030, all plastic packaging in the EU will be recyclable or re-usable. In other words, all plastic packaging will then be collected and transformed into new packaging materials, or can be used as such more once. This goal follows, amongst others, from the European Strategy for Plastics. It is a worthy endeavor, and for some it is not even ambiguous enough. The signatories of the Plastics Pact aim to achieve this result as early as 2025. Nestlé has also announced its ambition to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025. Since this year, Lipton bottles sold in the Netherlands are already made from 100% recycled plastic. The so-called European Single-use plastics Directive (Directive 2019/904) will soon be introduced to further promote recycling of plastics as one of the measures against disposable plastics. In the Netherlands, this Directive will be implemented by means of a General Administrative Order (in Dutch: Algemene Maatregel van Bestuur, or “AMvB”) before the Directive’s date of application on 3 July 2021. In this regard, an internet consultation will be launched this month to invite citizens, companies and institutions to make suggestions to improve the quality and feasibility of the current proposal.
Recycled materials and articles
The encouragement to use recycled materials and articles in the EU for environmental reasons was already expressed in recital 24 of the European framework legislation on food contact materials (Regulation 1935/2004). However, food safety and consumer protection should not be neglected. Therefore, food packaging materials, including recycled plastics, should not endanger human health and not adversely affect the composition of foods or their sensory properties in an unacceptable way. The above-mentioned framework legislation leaves room for detailed rules on specific materials, and priority has been given to rules on recycled plastics. Their use has been increasing for a long time. Indeed, today’s sustainability initiatives cannot be imagined without the recycling of plastic food packaging. Moreover, diverging national legislation on this topic as a consequence of no harmonization at EU level would be highly undesirable.
Specific rules on recycled plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with foods can be found in Regulation 282/2008. Such rules are important because plastic packaging waste can be contaminated by residues from previous use, but also by contaminants from misuse and from non-authorized substances. In order to ensure that possible contamination is removed and that recycled plastics therefore do not adversely affect human health and foodstuffs with which they come into contact, an appropriate sorting and recycling process is essential. It should be noted that Regulation 282/2008 refers to mechanical recycling, which does not involve any significant change in the chemical structure of the plastic material. This process is less suitable for composites and multilayered plastics, which means that not all plastics are eligible for recycling under Regulation 282/2008.
Authorization procedure plastic recycling processes in a nutshell
Before a recycling process can be applied to plastics to create food packaging, the process must be approved by the European Commission. Such authorizations are process specific. This means that authorizations cover a specific recycling process used in a specific company by applying specific technologies and process parameters. Authorization holders are of course free to license out the authorized recycling process to other companies. Applications for the approval of recycling processes shall be submitted to the competent authority at Member State level. The European Commission published a list of contact points for competent authorities. In the Netherlands, applications can be submitted to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (in Dutch: Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport, or “VWS”) and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (in Dutch, Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu, or “RIVM”).
As part of the application, a technical dossier is to be provided. This dossier will subsequently be subject to a safety assessment by EFSA, followed by a scientific opinion. In fact, here we very much see the parallel with the safety evaluations EFSA performs regarding for instance Novel Foods and additives. Topics to be covered to evaluate the safety of a particular recycling process include input characterization, description of the recycling process, determination of the decontamination efficiency of the recycling process, output characterization, and intended application in contact with food. For example, the dossier must demonstrate that and how it is ensured that the input material does not contain any chemical substances that could survive the recycling process and migrate to our foods in irresponsible quantities. In order to evaluate potential migration, detailed information on the type of food(s) intended to come into contact with the final product shall be provided. This will also include information on time, temperature and contact surface. Another important aspect concerns single or repeated use of the final product. All of this data serves to exclude possible health hazards and unacceptable influences on foods due to migration of substances. Further details can be found in the guidelines published by EFSA.
After receipt of a valid dossier, EFSA has, in principle, six months to evaluate the dossier. Thereafter, it is up to the European Commission to take an authorization decision. In doing so, it will take into account EFSA’s scientific advice. The final authorization may be subject to conditions and/or restrictions, such as with regard to the plastic input, the recycling process and/or the field of application of the recycled plastic. Authorized recycling processes are listed in a Community register established by the European Commission.
Many companies like to inform consumers that the food packaging they use is made from recycled plastics. However, it is essential that consumers are not misled about, for example, the actual content of recycled plastics used. Companies are therefore advised to follow ISO 14021 on environmental labels and declarations, or equivalent rules. In addition, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (in Dutch: Reclame Code Commissie, or “RCC”) also explains what is possible and what is not, such as regarding packaging made of recycled plastics being environmentally friendly or friendlier. Environmental claims, i.e. advertisements in which implicit or explicit reference is made to environmental aspects associated with the production, distribution, consumption or waste processing of goods or services, must be verifiable. For instance, communicating that an article is “good for nature” because of the material used is perceived as misleading when this statement cannot be checked. It is no problem to use environmental symbols, as long as there is no confusion about the symbol’s origin and meaning. Examples of this include the Mobius Loop accompanied by the percentage of recycled material used in or near the symbol, as well as Lipton’s variation thereof.
While food business operators shall normally not be involved in the recycling of packaging themselves, they are advised to closely follow developments in this regard. Packaging namely plays an essential role in protecting foodstuffs and in providing information about the food it contains. Food business operators will therefore benefit from being aware of sustainable packaging possibilities. Moreover, food business operators can strengthen their legal position by being familiar with the legal requirements of the parties they cooperate with as well as with their own responsibilities set out by law. An example of the latter concerns making verifiable and non-misleading environmental claims, which is not always as easily done as said.