CBD is the fastest growing category the natural products sector has ever known. But as regulators act to tame its wilder fringes, a new phase of the CBD industry is being ushered in, Jim Manson reports
Try Googling CBD. You’ll get something like 452 million results (by way of comparison, Game of Thrones comes in at 257 million). Even when you refine your search to ‘CBD health products’ Google will still deliver an astonishing 159 million results. Meanwhile, Amazon UK currently lists over 10,000 CBD-containing products. That’s how big CBD is.
In our own industry, experienced commentators on both sides of the Atlantic agree that CBD is the fastest growing natural health category we have ever seen.
This unprecedented level of interest is being fuelled in part by a growing, if still limited, body of research showing that CBD helps address a range of important health issues, including anxiety, stress, insomnia, chronic pain and inflammation.
At exactly the same time, medical understanding of the crucial role that the body’s endocannabinoid system plays in regulating our overall health is expanding apace. But the biggest market driver is the enormous quantity of anecdotal evidence and user testimonials showing how CBD is helping millions of people address a far wider range of health and lifestyle issues.
“One the factors that makes the CBD sector very different is that it is a purely consumer-driven market,” explains Carlo Buckley, managing director of CBDfx Europe. “I have been in
the natural products sector since 2009 and I have not seen any category of products that has behaved like this – that is so driven by consumer demand.”
All of this has created a highly fertile environment for product innovation and entrepreneurialism. Some of the biggest names in CBD globally were start-ups themselves just a handful of years ago, many with little or no previous experience in the natural health sector.
In the last few years, thousands of CBD-containing products have come to market. There are CBD oils, tinctures, capsules, gummies, vapes, water, beer, chocolate, chewing gum, and CBD lotions, creams and topicals. In fact, if you can put CBD in it, you should probably assume someone already has (CBD-infused pillowcases or lube anyone?).
“One of the factors that makes the CBD market very different is that it is a purely consumer-driven market”
Not surprisingly this translates into some very healthy sales growth. A policy report by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) from 2019 estimates the value of the UK CBD market to be worth approximately £300 million per year and suggests there are about 1.3 million CBD users. If the current growth trajectory continues, says CMC, the UK CBD market will be worth £1 billion by 2025 – that’s equivalent to the entire UK herbal supplement market in 2016.
Rules and regulations
All of this has not gone unnoticed by regulators. The CBD-containing products freely on sale in health stores, supermarkets, cafés and online in the UK are marketed as food supplements and regulated under food law.
Last year, in a move met with dismay by large parts of the CBD industry, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reclassified cannabidiol extracts as a novel food, meaning that products require pre-market authorization before going on sale in the EU. Since the classification is legally non-binding, individual EU states can decide how, or whether, to enforce novel foods rules.
In February this year, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced that the UK would enforce the rules, setting a 31 March 2021 deadline, by which time all CBD products currently on
the market (that is, prior to 13 February 2020) would need to have a validated novel food authorization application to remain on the market. Products that failed to meet the requirement would be ‘taken off the shelves’, the Agency’s chief executive, Emily Miles, warned.
Parts of the UK CBD industry have welcomed the FSA’s decision, saying that regulation is needed to protect both consumers and responsible brand owners. Others in the sector see it as part of a ploy to nudge CBD towards medicines-style regulation that only large pharma companies can afford to operate to.
Right place, wrong reasons
But even those industry associations that continue to reject CBD’s designation as a novel food acknowledge that this clarification by the FSA at least offers a compliance pathway for manufactures and brands. As one brand owner told NPN: “We’re getting to the right place, even if for the wrong reasons.”
Part of getting to the ‘right place’ also involves strengthening industry standards around product testing, labelling and manufacturing. Last year the CMC commissioned blind testing of 30 popular UK CBD brands, which it said ‘demonstrated that many CBD products on the market did not contain what was indicated on the label’. In independent testing of popular CBD products commissioned by the BBC’s Trust Me I’m A Doctor, similar discrepancies between actual and stated CBD levels were found, while some exceeded recommended THC dosages.
Gaining and retaining trust in CBD products is key to the category’s longer term growth, says Tony Calamita, co-founder of Love Hemp. “We describe ourselves as ‘the brand that is proud to operate in a regulated way in an unregulated market’ to make an important point. CBD is a new product; consumers are still unsure about it – they’re sometimes nervous about its links to cannabis. So, gaining their trust is important. We spend a lot of money on analytical testing through different stages of the product life. We have our own in-house HPLC analysis machine, for example. We test and test again, and larger batches are sent for third-party analysis and spot checks.”
We’re getting to the right place, even if for the wrong reasons
Calamita highlights labelling as a current problem area for the industry. “The key ingredient that adds value is CBD. So, you’re seeing some people being a bit tricky in how they describe concentrations in a product. There are no specific criteria the industry has to meet in relation to levels or amounts of CBD. Let’s say you’ve got a 10% CBD oil. What is the criteria by which you are allowed to state on pack that it contains 10% CBD? Is it between 9.8 and 10.2? Is it between 9.5 and 10.5? This is the type of criteria, the type of regulation that needs to be in place.”
Industry ‘placed on notice’
With a compliance deadline in place, the CBD sector has been ‘placed on notice’, in the words of the Association for Cannabinoid Industry (an affiliate organization of the CMC). The Alliance for Natural Health, meanwhile, has described the FSA’s decision to enforce novel food rules as placing a ‘ticking bomb’ under the CBD products sector, and one that would ‘inevitably benefit the bigger companies with greater resources, risking a disproportionate impact on smaller companies that have traditionally been the pioneers in the natural products sector’.
Many CBD industry insiders now expect a significant shake-out in the sector as all parts of the supply chain – manufacturers, retailers, brand owners and contract manufacturers – are required to demonstrate that products are legal and compliant. The CBD ‘gold rush’, as it has been frequently described, is over. A new phase of the industry is being ushered in.
CBD regulation – what happens next?
In its February announcement, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) set a dead-line of 31 March 2021 by which time all CBD products currently on the UK market would have to have submitted a ‘valid’ novel foods application.
All businesses along the supply chain – including manufacturers, brand owners, retailers and con-tract manufacturers – are each responsible for making sure their products are legal and compliant with the requirements before they market them.
All applications must include a sufficiently comprehensive scientific dossier – including laboratory analysis, safety and toxicological data, full information on manufacturing process and product composition and intended use – to allow the EFSA to make a full novel food product assessment.
For anyone wondering, the FSA has let it be known that cursory two-page submissions ‘will never be validated’.
A question of size
Some larger players are by now likely to be progressing applications, and the regulators will be keen to get a number of these over the line to demonstrate that the system is working.
But the vast majority of CBD products on sale in the UK are marketed by much smaller businesses. As one well-placed industry insider told NPN: “The reality is that many of these companies aren’t anywhere near the beginning of the process, and plenty don’t even understand the process.”
Products not currently on the market will need to gain a full authorization. Here, companies could be looking at costs of up to £750,000, and a process lasting two to three years. It means that the definition of ‘on the market’ is of crucial business importance.
There are questions too about the practicality of joint, or consolidated, novel food submissions, and how in reality novel food rules would be enforced on the ground.
But there is arguably a more fundamental question. Is the FSA’s action on CBD proportionate to any risk that products may present to public? While it seems extremely unlikely that the FSA will willingly depart from its current course, it’s still possible that it may be subject to political or even legal challenges. Watch this space …
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Kanabia CBD+ Oil
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