It is not easy being a risk manager for foodstuffs in the European Commission: Often you are assailed from both sides for making difficult decisions on the basis of not an awful lot of evidence.
These decisions are important, however, not always because of the products in question but because of what they say about the Commission’s thinking on the whole issue of risk management.
For a number of months ESSNA, the association of 43 sports nutrition companies from throughout the EU that I chair, has been following the EC’s evolving thinking on what to do with two fairly obscure substances: Ephedra and yohimbe.
On ephedra the conclusions are clear – the product is a risk to human health. As a result, the Commission has moved to ensure that it is prohibited.
What hinges on yohimbe…
The case of yohimbe is more interesting as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) view on its safety is inconclusive – though many in the industry agree that it should be prohibited as there are suggestions that it may be harmful to health.
However this situation is one such example of where the substance is perhaps less important than the Commission’s decision on how to manage availability.
ESSNA has little interest in the substances themselves but we have concerns about what the procedure could mean for other substances on which clarity is needed and which are a lot more important to the sports nutrition sector.
One reason why yohimbe in particular is less important is because it is already banned, or classed as a medicinal product, in the majority, if not all, of EU member states.
Recognising this, the Commission asked EFSA for a view. As mentioned above, though EFSA were unable to give a definitive opinion on its safety, partly because it is so little used in food products, the Commission nevertheless recently put forward a proposed new Regulation that puts yohimbe on an “under scrutiny” list of products under the Fortified Food Regulation.
ESSNA has spent the past 18 months taking action against those companies that sell products that contain illegal ingredients which may be harmful to consumers.
We have spent much time and much energy ensuring that, when they buy their sports nutrition shake or supplements, the average man or woman knows that the product is safe and effective. So why are ESSNA concerned about this substance being put on a Europe-wide watch list?
Because we think the Commission is not going far enough and, indeed, may be opening doors that could see products containing this substance coming to market. The Commission has another option – it could simply ban yohimbe entirely by putting it on its prohibited list.
Yohimbeen & gone?
There is much to recommend this, not least that it would harmonise the decision and give industry regulatory certainty. The fact is that the food sector in the EU has shown little interest in commercialising yohimbe: Banning it across all 28 member states would make little or no difference.
Not banning it, on the other hand, would allow a strange twilight situation to occur where companies within the EU do not market products containing yohimbe, but consumers are free to turn to mostly internet imports from outside of the EU from places with laxer regulations, such as the US. This sends the wrong message to both consumers and industry.
It is not often ESSNA calls for the banning of a substance, particularly where there is no definitive proof that it is harmful to consumers.
But this is a case that highlights some of the inconsistencies in the Commission’s approach to risk management and raises a number of troubling questions about the process itself and its future application to other substances.
Dr Adam Carey is chair of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance.