Industry must agree clear goals for post-Brexit future

The UK natural health sector must adopt a unified perspective and agree clear objectives to present to government officials in order to secure the best outcome for industry and consumers in a post-Brexit future.

  • Industry urged to adopt unified position and agree clear goals
  • Opportunity to create innovation-friendly regulatory environment 
  • Industry should press for “sensible implementation” from UK authorities 
  • Food v. medicine – a fresh look at the evidence needed 
  • Brexit currency effects, labour supply issues may have serious consequences for the UK trade

That was the conclusion of a panel of industry leaders and regulatory experts at a special ‘Brexit Question Time’ discussion at Natural & Organic Products Europe, held in London earlier this month.

Much of the discussion, chaired by NPN editor-in-chief Jim Manson, focused on how the specialist health food sector can best influence the regulatory environment during and after the UK Government’s crucial Article 50 negotiations. Graham Keen, executive director of the Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA), who has attended regular Defra Brexit Roundtable meetings since last June, said he had detected a change in “attitude and mind-set” towards how EU laws would be carried over into UK law.

He commented: “At the most recent Roundtable – the fifth – there was a noticeable change from the previous hard and fast, no-alternative cut and paste approach … to something more moderate.” He sensed growing support for a concept that he had introduced himself at the HFMA last year, which he calls ‘cut and paste plus’.

“Yes, Defra needs to cut and paste 19,000 pieces of legislation, but why not think about tweaking them along the way. In other words, can’t we put right some of the daft and frustrating things that we’ve been forced to deal with, and which have gone so wrong?”. He noted that the Daily Telegraph had recently launched a campaign to cut legislation by half to reduce the regulatory burden on business.

Bigger fish
But Keen conceded that health food products are likely to be well down the list of priorities for Government officials. “I go along to these Roundtables and other meetings thinking ‘how we can get health claims discussed, how can we get to use the word probiotic?’. But other people want to know where they will get labour to pick their fruit, or how will we get milk from Irish cows across the border in Northern Ireland.”


For this reason, Keen argued that the health products industry must adopt “a unified sector position, and agree clear, simple objectives to present to Government department officials. To that end, he said, the HFMA is steering a natural products sector initiative to reach a coordinated position on Brexit, and a post-Brexit wish-list.

One of the issues where there is now industry-wide agreement is maximum levels for vitamins and minerals. “There has never been this level of agreement among industry stakeholders in nine years. I think that’s significant. Another issue of “fundamental importance” is the question of health claims. “The Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) is considered absolutely ripe for reform. For example, flexibility of wording, and descriptors like probiotics. But one thing people aren’t really talking about is that we need a whole new system for approval for our health claims – or move back to the system we had before, whereby if something was non-medicinal and it could be substantiated you were able to say it. But either way we’re going to need to have a new system in place within the next few years. Otherwise we’ll still be putting our health claims forward for EFSA approval and authorisation.

“So, for NHCR and other key bits of legislation we need a really clear path for what it going to replace it, or our default position will be what we have at the minute”

“So, for NHCR and other key bits of legislation we need a really clear path for what it going to replace it, or our default position will be what we have at the minute. That’s what the HFMA and other organizations are spending a lot of time thinking about now.”

No going back
Responding to a question from retailer Mike Abrahams, who said that a drift towards a one-product-fits-all manufacturer mentality risked short-changing UK consumers, and asked why the UK health food trade couldn’t simply return to operating under food law, Keen commented: “To think that we might travel back from where we are now – basically, a scientifically, robust and safe situation for marketing products, well I would argue that we have come too far.

To take up your point about multinational companies with the one-size-fits-all product, and the consumer at the other end, I think there will always be companies all along that spectrum. But most of the companies in this room are way closer to the consumer, and his or her interests, than the other end.”

Robert Verkerk, executive & scientific director at Alliance for Natural Health International, wanted to pick up on the issue of food law – or, specifically, the “the intersection of food law and medicine law”. He said: “The reason we have a road block, with products being taken off the market, is because medicinal law imposes itself far too often on food law. So I think one of the opportunities we have is to deal with the elements that exist in food law, but also look at the very broad scope and definition of medicinal law and then at the interpretation of what is generally considered acceptable scientific evidence.

“More widely, we would like to see through different kind of lens that applies scientific substantiation, but that makes sense in the real world.” He complained that the UK authorities had “typically been bean counters, and firm, rigid interpreters of EU law”. What was needed, he argued, was is “a diverse, vibrant natural products community that is rightfully seen as an important contributor to the health of the nation”. Instead, he said, “it’s too often seen as an industry that’s peddling supplements that haven’t been validated – so we need to reframe the vision of this sector and re-present it as a really important contributor to the nation’s health”.

There is no harmonization
Patrick Ahern, director general of the European Federation of Health Products Manufacturers (EHPM), challenged the notion of one-product-fits-all, and indeed the whole concept of ‘harmonizing’ legislation.

“The reality is that if you are an exporter, you will generally need different documentation for each country. There is no harmonized system even within the EU. For example, the rules for plant based ingredients in food supplements varies from member state to member state. Even the extent to which there is harmonization, say on the approved ingredients for use in food supplements, is questionable – different dosage requirements apply on a country-by-country basis.

“The reality is that if you are an exporter, you will generally need different documentation for each country. There is no harmonized system even within the EU”

“So, the reality is that you’re going to end up with UK laws, and then a set of 27 EU rules. The rules are different in every country already. The chances that those rules will be harmonized even after the UK has left are extremely limited.”

The two business leaders on the panel – Robert Taylor, senior vice president at Vitabiotics (and HFMA chairman), and Tree of Life CEO, John Weaver – were asked to comment on the possible short, medium and long-term effects of Brexit on their companies.

Taylor said that the short-term effects were seen just weeks after the Referendum vote last June. “These were well-documented, in terms of currency changes and the effects on Sterling.” This meant that it was cheaper for international customers to buy the company’s products, helping exports, but that higher costs of raw materials bought from overseas “have been felt immediately”.

Profound long-term effects
Taylor said he didn’t foresee major changes over the next two or three years, during the main period of negotiations between Britain and the EU. “It’s the long-term effects that will be the most profound, he predicted. “What I hope is that we start moving in the direction being indicated by the panel. That is, towards a more innovation-friendly environment for business – and for consumers, a prevention-friendly regulatory environment. I think those would be the big strands of our long-term goals.

“How do get to that? Well, we’re not going to pull back from all of the regulations that are already there. We’re going to need general food law, we’re going to need labelling laws, we’re going to need contaminants and pesticides control and additive regulation; that’s always going to be there.

“But if we get agreement on the principle that if something is safe, you can sell it, and if something is true, you can say it – then I think we’ll have travelled a long way in the right direction.”

John Weaver agreed that currency changes had had immediate effects. “What matters is the effect it has on profits and profitability. It may sound banal but ultimately it limits our ability to reinvest in the business and in technology – so it slows us down and impinges on the role we can play in making products available to retailers and consumer. That may balance out, currency may return. But I think we may well need to adjust the net import-export balance of our trading profile, away from certain directions.

“In the medium term I see issues around labour. I think the lifecycle of what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it, which is highly manual, will be significantly shortened and we will be compelled to borrow money to invest in automation and reduce headcount, so it’s serious for the people who work for us. Over the long term I think we will be compelled to look for a different position in the value chain.”

Picking up on a question about health claims, EHPM’s Ahern argued that the improvements could be achieved by the UK without fundamentally changing things. “With health claims it is more about implementation, not the text or the regulation itself. So, for example, we recently submitted comments and a review of plant-based claims. Under the EFSA system, to get an approval you need three clinical trials which cost EUR 500,000 each. The UK could conceivably come up with a system where clinical trial would be accepted – or an observation study with a clinical trial would be accepted – and you would promote innovation that way.

“You probably have opportunities to promote innovation just by improving the implementation of what exists. And you’ll have more flexibility in that because you just need to agree it with your one government. The big problem with health claims regulation is that the Commission, I imagine, informally realizes it’s a bit of a disaster. But you can’t roll back something that easily when there are 27 governments involved.”

Artificial contract
Robert Verkerk said that an “artificial contract between food and medicine” had formed the basis of much EU regulation on natural health products. “We’ve now got a very different scientific environment to the one that this regulation grew up in. We now know that food is medicine, we know that exercise is medicine and therefore we need to re-frame the way that foods can be used for therapeutic benefit and I think that will yield a fundamental change. I think that we need review the whole of medicinal law in relation to the use of therapeutic foods. That could create a possibility of a third route, or a third category, such as we’ve seen in Canada. Obviously to do that would be a whole new story and probably a decade plus to actually achieve that.”

“We’ve now got a very different scientific environment to the one that this regulation grew up in. We now know that food is medicine, we know that exercise is medicine and therefore we need to re-frame the way that foods can be used for therapeutic benefit”

Answering a question from Avril McCracken of the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS) about the impact of Brexit on the range products available to health food retailers, Weaver said that from a wholesaler’s perspective he expected a “temporary blip while we’re all getting used to new prices and new price settings, and indeed new margin expectations”. But in the medium to long term he expected there to continue to be “plenty of variety”.

But he added: “The question for the rest of the panel is what form will regulation take, and how friendly will the inter-country regulations be, whether that’s for organic, supplements, or any other products that you sell.”

Taking on a final question about whether, ultimately, Brexit would be good or bad for the UK’s specialist natural health sector, Taylor said there was “a real opportunity in the longer term for Britain to become a hub of innovation”. Weaver expected “some shocks and bumps” in the short to medium term. But he added: “We’ve withstood a lot of red tape over the years and manufacturers in the UK are a hardy lot – so I’m generally optimistic.”


The panel
Graham Keen, Executive Director, Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA)
Robert Taylor, Senior Vice President, Vitabiotics; HFMA chairman
John Weaver, CEO Tree of Life
Patrick Ahern, director general, European Federation of Health Products Manufacturers (EHPM)
Robert Verker, Executive & Scientific Director, Alliance for Natural Health International