Food businesses operators that make medical claims for their products in the Netherlands can be fined for doing so under food law. However, they also run the risk of being fined under the Dutch Medicines Act (in Dutch: “Geneesmiddelenwet”), in which case much higher fine amounts apply. The latter sometimes provokes surprise and outrage. Based on three recent rulings, we see a positive trend, which is explained below.
In principle, a medicinal product cannot be sold in the Netherlands without an authorization. Advertising a medicinal product that has not been authorized is prohibited as well. If a product is classified as such and sold without a license, the seller risks a hefty fine.
The legal definition of the term medicinal product and the corresponding authorization requirement can be found in the Dutch Medicines Act, which is based on the European Directive 2001/83/EC (the “Medicinal Product Directive”). The Medicinal Product Directive provides two criteria for the definition of a medicinal product: qualification by presentation and qualification by function. If a product meets one of these two criteria, it is classified as a medicinal product. The aforementioned criteria are further elaborated in case law.
Qualification by function
A product is a medicinal product by function (see the Hecht-Pharma judgment) if it can be administered to cure or prevent disease, diagnose or otherwise affect a person’s bodily functions. Of particular importance here are the composition and properties of the product, the method of use, the extent of distribution of the product, the consumers’ familiarity with the product and the health risks associated with its use.
Qualification by presentation
When applying the presentation criterion (see the Van Bennekom judgment), consideration is – unsurprisingly – given to whether a product should be regarded as a medicinal product on the basis of its presentation. It is not necessary that the product is expressly indicated or recommended as a medicinal product. The presentation criterion is already met if the manner of presentation gives the average consumer the impression that the product has a medicinal effect. The form in which the product is presented may give an indication for this, especially in the case of tablets, pills and capsules.
In particular the presentation criterion poses a risk to food companies. If they (unintentionally) make a medical claim in respect of their product, the presentation criterion may result in this product being classified (also) as a medicinal product by the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (“NVWA”). In that case, the NVWA may issue a fine under the Dutch Medicines Act. The starting point for such fine is €150,000, which is then differentiated based on the Policy rules of the Dutch Ministry of Health 2019. Even if the product also falls within the legal definition of food, the Dutch Medicines Act may apply simultaneously. The foregoing follows from the so-called hierarchy provision embodied in article 2.2 of the Medicinal Products Directive, which has been implemented into Dutch law as well. On the basis of this hierarchy principle, the Dutch Medicines Act is applicable if there is any doubt about the applicable product category. The result of this provision is that even a seller of coconut oil can receive a fine under the Dutch Medicines Act.
New trend in enforcement of medical claims?
Dutch case law gives numerous examples of products being classified as medicinal products by courts based on (solely) the presentation criterion. Recently, three court rulings have been rendered which give reason to assume that there is a new trend in case law. These are a ruling of the District Court of Oost-Brabant of March 25, 2022, and two (materially identical) rulings of the District Court of The Hague of June 28, 2022, regarding food supplements and follow-on milk, respectively.
The first case concerns the sale of dietary supplements, for which medical claims were made. The NVWA therefore classifies these supplements as medicinal products based on the presentation criterion and imposes two fines under the Dutch Medicines Act (both for sale and for advertising an unregistered medicinal product). The seller’s defense is that the Dutch Medicines Act should be interpreted in accordance with the Medicinal Product Directive and that it follows from there that the contested decision of the NVWA is based on an incorrect legal basis.
The court agreed with this argumentation, referring to the amendment of the Medicinal Product Directive of 2004. The court deduces from the preamble to the amendment that the Medicinal Product Directive does not apply if there is no doubt that a product clearly exclusively belongs to another product category, such as food or food supplements. The court ruled that this was indeed the case for the specific circumstances that were under discussion. The products clearly fall under the category of food supplements and therefore solely food law applies. The court confirms that the Dutch Medicines Act must, after all, be interpreted in accordance with the Medicinal Product Directive. The court therefore does not proceed testing the medical claims made against the presentation criterion based on drug legislation at all.
The above ruling raises the question when a product is “clearly exclusively” a food and what aspects of the product are important in this respect. Indications for this can be found in the two recent decisions of the District Court of The Hague regarding specific food products for toddlers, namely follow-on formula. In its assessment of whether the follow-on formula in question could be a medicinal product by presentation, the court determined that such qualification is not obvious with regard to products sold in supermarkets and drugstores. Another factor in this case was that the detailed information about the follow-on formula, on the basis of which the Dutch Ministry of Health (the counterparty in the cases at stake) believed it to be a medicinal product by presentation, could only be found on the seller’s website.
Based on the rulings discussed, we signal a trend that judges are halting the current practice of enforcement of prohibited medical claims for food products based on the Dutch Medicines Act. The discussed rulings make clear that (prohibited) health claims for food supplements and for other food products such as follow-on formula should be assessed on the basis of the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (the “FIC Regulation”), and not via the presentation criterion based on the Dutch Medicines Act. In our opinion this is justified, because since the FIC Regulation became applicable, food law is specifically set up to do so. We are very curious to see whether the trend initiated above will be followed by other courts. Although it follows from a ruling of the District Court of Zeeland-West-Brabant of 21 October, 2022, that this is not yet the case, we trust this will only be a matter of time.
The above does however not mean that food business operators would be allowed to make medical claims for their products. Also, the FIC Regulation contains a ban on medical claims for food products and the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation sets forth a strict regime for authorized health claims. Having said that, fines following a violation of food legislation are far lower than fines based on the Dutch Medicines Act. On balance, food companies are therefore better off with fines based on food legislation.
This blogpost is written by Max Baltussen, Karin Verzijden and Jasmin Buijs.
The authors want to acknowledge Ebba Hoogenraad and Irene Verheijen for sharing the case law discussed here.