Health claims for botanicals? – the ECJ is looking into itPosted: December 8, 2023
Germany’s highest court, the Bundesgerichtshof, asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) this summer to explain the use of ‘on hold’ claims for so-called ‘botanicals’. The question is whether these substances may be advertised with health claims or general, non-specific health benefits as long as the assessment by EFSA has not been completed and the European Commission has not yet taken a final decision on the authorization of these claims.
This question stems from proceedings initiated by the German unfair competition association Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb e.V.. We owe many ECJ rulings to this German association, including the famous TofuTown ruling from which it follows that milk designations are reserved for animal dairy products only. We covered the TofuTown case in an earlier blogpost. The current case is against the food supplement company Novel Nutriology, which sells, among other things, an ‘anti-stress’ supplement containing saffron and melon juice extract.
The saffron extract is said to create a more positive mood, according to the seller’s website. This expression is backed by the results of an open study on 50 participants over a 30-day period. Research has shown that the melon juice extract reduces feelings of stress and fatigue, according to the website. Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb e. V. considers these to be unpermitted health claims. It therefore requested Novel Nutriology to stop making these claims, but the supplement company did not listen.
Approved health claims
Health claims are in principle only allowed if they are included in the lists of approved claims under the EU Claims Regulation. This follows from article 10(1) Claims Regulation. References to general, non-specific health benefits such as ‘heart health’ and ‘mental energy’ are allowed if accompanied by a specific, approved claim (article 10(3) Claims Regulation). However, health claims for botanicals are ‘on hold’ and are therefore not included in the lists of approved claims. Therefore, the literal text of Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation cannot be met when making health claims for botanicals.
Claims Regulation nevertheless applicable to botanicals?
To determine whether Novel Nutriology violates the prohibition on making unauthorized health claims, it is essential to know whether Article 10(1) and (3) of the Claims Regulation apply to botanicals. If not, violation of these provisions is out of the question.
As can be seen from the summary of the request for the preliminary ruling, the view is generally taken that references to general health benefits of botanicals must comply with Article 10(3) Claims Regulation. The requirements of this provision are met if the generic health benefit is accompanied by the full, specific health claim that is ‘on hold’. That full ‘on hold’ claim, although not officially authorized, may be used in accordance with the transitional measures in Article 28(5) and (6) Claims Regulation. It would not be compatible with the purpose of Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation to exclude these provisions entirely for botanicals. Such would namely mean that botanical substances may be advertised with non-specific health claims without a scientific assessment of the specific claim supporting them.
Nevertheless, the Bundesgerichtshof finds it unclear whether Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation apply to botanicals. As an argument against applicability, the German court states that the Union legislator would have considered an absolute ban on general health benefits as too broad. Therefore, the Union legislator intended to ban such only if the general claim is not accompanied by an approved, specific health claim.
It is currently however impossible to obtain approval for botanical claims that are ‘on hold’ due to the European Commission’s inaction. By making Article 10(3) Claims Regulation applicable to these substances, the prohibition becomes broader than the Union legislator would have intended. It should therefore be assumed that general health benefits for botanicals are not regulated until the European Commission continues the authorization procedure for ‘on hold’ claims. Based on this alternative view, Article 10(3) of the Claims Regulation should not apply until then.
A second argument raised against the applicability of Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation to botanicals is that the European Commission has not taken action on ‘on hold’ claims for many years. Upholding the applicability of Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation, which cannot be met for ‘on hold’ claims, would lead to a disproportionate restriction of the interests of companies making such claims.
Previous ECJ rulings
Whether the aforementioned alternative views are sufficient to exclude botanicals from the scope of Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation remains to be seen. As highlighted in a report published last September, companies are able to make health claims for botanicals that are included in the ‘on hold’ list under the transitional regime of Article 28(5) and (6) of the Claims Regulation. Moreover, the ECJ ruled in previous cases that companies making ‘on hold’ claims are not disproportionately disadvantaged. Since they can make claims without EFSA having assessed these and/or without a final decision from the European Commission, they are in fact favored.
Aforementioned report also highlights that the ECJ previously made explicit that Article 28(5) Claims Regulation makes an exception for the use of specific health claims as referred to in Article 13(1)(a) Claims Regulation that have not yet been officially approved. The report therefore concludes that the mentioned transitional regime only applies to the full specific claim and not to general health benefits. General health benefits would therefore not be allowed, although it is recognized that some EU member states do accept general health benefits for botanicals when accompanied by the full ‘on hold’ claim.
Relevance for practice
Health claims for botanicals are currently accepted in the Netherlands if the roadmap of the Dutch agency regulating health products (the Keuringsraad) in cooperation with the NVWA, is met (see here, in Dutch). In brief, this means that (i) the substance and claim are present on the ‘on hold’ list, (ii) potential conditions of use such as a daily dosage are included on the label, (iii) the claim is in line with the wording accepted on KOAG KAG’s ‘indicative list’, and (iv) a disclaimer regarding the ongoing approval procedure is made.
If the ECJ rules that Article 10(1) and (3) Claims Regulation does not apply to botanicals, it is uncertain whether the Keuringsraad roadmap can be upheld. It is however more likely that the ECJ will clarify that botanicals do fall within the scope of the aforementioned provisions. In that case, various outcomes are still possible. In connection with the transitional provisions of Article 28 Claims Regulation, a difference may arise for full ‘on hold’ claims and general health benefits. Such will partly depend on whether the ECJ sticks to the literal text of the transitional provisions (which would prohibit the use of general health benefits), or takes into account current practices (in which case advertising with general health benefits remains allowed under certain conditions). To be continued!