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An unintended barrier to EU markets

Maca products (I Manrique)
Maca products
I Manrique

Foods that could add variety and nutrients to diets are being denied access to EU markets by possibly over-cautious legislation that bars 'novel food'. Yet, to farmers in the Andes of South America, their roots and tubers, fruits and grains are far from novel. For generations, they have been central to the diet of the highland people. Now the time seems to be right for these, and other farmers of minor crops around the world, to share the nutritious and tasty products outside their regions. Demands for more diverse diets, containing health-promoting and ethically and sustainably produced foods, are on the increase in many developed countries; and promoting trade as a way of improving livelihoods is a strategy shared by many working in development.

Unfortunately, the EU Novel Food Regulation (Regulation No. 258/97), which dates from 1997 when fears over GM foods were high in Europe, has become a non-tariff barrier to such foods. Under this regulation, foods are 'novel' if not used for human consumption to a significant degree within the EU before 15 May 1997. If identified as novel, the only chance of market access is through a long and complicated process, with requirements that are beyond small-scale producers and exporters in developing countries. Developing-country farmers and European consumers are both losing out.

A joint initiative between the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species (GFU), the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), the German Development Agency GTZ and the post-harvest consortium PhAction is campaigning for amendment of the regulation so that exotic traditional foods can access the EU market more easily. "We don't believe the regulation was intended to prevent these foods from entering the EU," says Irmgard Hoeschle-Zeledon, coordinator of the GFU. "But it asks for extensive data - for example, from toxicity, allergenicity and clinical studies - which are just too expensive for small companies in developing countries."

No danger to consumers

Michael Hermann, a scientist with IPGRI, has been working for several years on Andean root and tuber crops, to promote biodiversity conservation and at the same time improve the livelihoods of Andean farmers. He points out that these crops are widely eaten within their native region, often at high intake levels, and they clearly pose no danger to consumers. But, as with other underutilised crops, they have been largely overlooked by science and there is little formal knowledge on food composition and post-harvest processes. Some, however, have been sufficiently investigated to know that they have good nutritional and health-promoting properties. In addition, they are usually produced in environmentally sustainable and ethically managed production systems, making them attractive to consumers in developed countries who want to diversify their diets but are increasingly uneasy about industrial production methods. These foods could fill an upmarket niche and command high prices in Europe, which with fair trade arrangements would directly benefit the farmers and rural communities.

But potential traders of these speciality foods have been discouraged by the EU regulation and its confusing and inconsistent implementation. Many have had applications declined, and all have observed the lengthy and expensive process and its uncertain outcome for those who have tried to follow the rules. When an application is accepted, the average time to a final decision has been 18-24 months. By October 2002, decisions had been made on eight novel foods. Six were authorised to be introduced to the market, all of which were innovations or derivatives of existing products. The two exotic traditional foods - Stevia rebaudiana, a plant widely used as a sweetener in Brazil; and the nuts of Canarium indicum, which are grown and eaten in the Pacific - were denied market access. Not surprisingly, potential importers are increasingly reluctant to invest in the supply chain for such foods. But ironically, many European aid agencies are supporting projects that promote trade in exotic foods, as a way to alleviate poverty, apparently unaware of the conflict with the Novel Food Regulation.

Unfair to small companies

To date, only one exotic traditional product has been passed by the EU Regulation, in November 2003 - a juice of the noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia). This is being marketed by a large US-based company which was able to supply the extensive food safety evidence. The company is now the sole permitted supplier of a noni product in Europe; other noni products will require the same lengthy and expensive approval process. Hoeschle-Zeledon and Hermann believe this has given the company an unfair advantage selling a food which should be in the public domain.

The campaigners want the EU to recognise exotic traditional foods as a separate novel food category so that different requirements can be set for them. An upcoming revision of the regulation will provide the opportunity for such a change. They suggest that a reasonable criterion for market access would be that risks associated with these foods should not exceed those of European traditional foods, noting that far smaller intakes will be expected. They point out that in Switzerland, a non-EU country, regulations generally follow the principle that if a food is eaten abroad, no problem is anticipated with its consumption in Switzerland. And they recommend that development projects promoting trade in exotic foods consider legitimate food safety concerns and generate the necessary data within the project.

Date published: November 2004


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