Why we need a new streamlined approach to Novel Foods in the UK
By Richard Horwell, owner of Brand Relations
Is Novel foods legislation a dinosaur holding back innovation and growth in the UK’s food and beverage industry? The short answer is YES.
The USA and Canada are finding themselves at the vanguard of a revolution which has resulted in a booming appetite for food products containing novel foods with health benefits.
These can include anything from CBD oil, Hemp, Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tails and Monk Fruit. And the reason we in the UK are sadly trailing behind in this field is due solely to an outmoded, dinosaur of an organisation, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which regulates the use of novel foods in this country.
While there used to be a very good reason for the FSA to exist, it really is not needed anymore, and it is having a catastrophic and detrimental effect on innovation and growth in F&B.
What is the FSA?
The Food Standards Agency is responsible for food safety and hygiene in the UK and works with local authorities to enforce food safety and it ensures that standards are being met. And while there is no dispute that there needs to be safety measures in this industry, the agency seems to be stuck in a time-warp that moves at a snail’s pace and doesn’t appear to have any vision about the future or the current demands of the modern-day consumer. Hence, we are in the ridiculous position of being able to buy food supplements off the internet and consume them to our hearts content but when it comes to putting the same ingredients in foods, they don’t meet the FSA regulations.
What are Novel Foods?
This is food that hasn’t had a significant history of human consumption or has been produced by a previously unknown method in the EU before May 15, 1997 when the first regulations for novel foods came into force. We inherited the regulations from the EU with its limitations on what you can and can’t use in food and drink. It was meant to protect consumers from using ingredients in food and drink that could potentially cause harm if its safety is not proven.
Recent trends for hemp, CBD and cannabinoids, Krill oil, chia seeds, noni-fruit juice, baobab and various forms of dried mushroom such as Lion’s Mane and Turkey Tails have resulted in an insatiable demand for these perceived healthy plant-based foods. But they are all currently lounging in a very deep novel foods pit, awaiting the green light from the FSA which says these all have to be tested as safe and properly labelled and cannot be legally sold until authorised. This might make sense if millions of people in the UK weren’t already consuming these products freely in the form of supplements.
Why supplements and not food?
When the UK left the EU there was a glimmer of hope that this nonsense would come to an end. We hoped one of the benefits of Brexit would mean we could get rid of Novel foods and its daft regulations and bring the UK more in line with America. But sadly, we are still in the throes of bureaucrats who are making a mockery of the situation. There are no restrictions regarding vitamins for personal use. That leaves the consumer in the ludicrous position of being able to take whatever they like freely alongside their food – they just can’t have the same supplement in their food. It makes no sense at all.
Why do we want Novel Foods added to our food?
Convenience is the obvious answer. But since COVID 19 there has been a surge in the demand for healthy food and plant-based products. Post-pandemic consumers are prioritising wellness and looking more towards natural products. Food and drink manufacturers quite rightly want to satisfy this demand. Consumers actively want products with added health benefits. It is simple supply and demand, but food and drink innovators are being stifled by our out-dated laws. So many people are coming through my door wanting to use natural health foods in their products. They have tapped into this burgeoning market but I have to tell them it can’t be done. It’s not allowed until they have gathered and submitted extensive evidence to the FSA which is both an expensive and lengthy process. For example, in March 2021 only 210 applications from several thousand products were considered viable for further consideration.
Shouldn’t we be cautious about what goes into our food?
Of course. But I have known cases where producers have gone somewhere else with their idea and a more unethical company has agreed to take the product on with a disclaimer for responsibility. They will find a way, but it just pushes the problem further down the line to the FSA to police which is time consuming and a waste of time, resource and money. In most cases these health products have already been tested. Canada has approved more than 90 Novel Foods including canola, corn, cotton seed and flax. Many products are already on sale in the USA and if we are going to be trading with America why isn’t this good enough for us? Our laws say everything new has to be tested but if it is already tested (elsewhere or in different products, say supplements) and it’s not making anyone sick, what’s the problem? We need to free ourselves from the bureaucrats.
Are there any Novel Foods currently on the market?
Chia seeds, when first introduced, were only allowed to be sold as single ingredients but due to the increase in dietary intake in recent years and an extensive literature search by the European Food Standards Agency the product is now widely added to chocolate, fruit spreads, yoghurts and non-alcoholic beverages.
Cholesterol reducing spreads have also been approved with the addition of phytosterols and phytostanols and are gathering huge commercial success. The appetite for CBD in food and drink is currently booming although consumers might be surprised to learn this hasn’t yet been approved by the FSA. Major retailers Boots and Holland & Barrrett reported an increase of 65 % in revenue in November 2021 from CBD products and they are set to pull in £690 million in 2021 – an increase of £314 million since 2019. Big names like heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua are behind the CBD brand Love Hemp and many CBD companies have joined forces to push CBD on to the market which has given it the clout it has needed. But nothing is certain for them yet and this hugely successful product which has already gone through rigorous testing in other parts of the world could still have the rug pulled from underneath it.
What does it cost to launch a Novel Food?
It is astronomical and out of the reach of most small businesses. Think at least five or six figures for testing and research. If you are lucky, you will only have certain limitations about how much of your chosen ingredient you can use. But you will still probably have to wait years to be able to sell your product. The companies with money have a disproportionate advantage which isn’t fair on our industry’s smaller entrepreneurs. We are now in a position where some products are on the market without approval because there has been financial weight behind them. Some producers are getting away with it, for now, others can’t even enter the market. I would like to see a much more level playing field.
Why is Stevia, a sugar substitute allowed but Monk Fruit, a natural fruit from Asia isn’t? What we need as an industry is greater clarity and a commonsense approach. We would like to see a streamlined approach to novel foods, and that starts with shaking off the shackles of a legislative body that is no longer in tune with our modern world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Horwell is the owner of Brand Relations, a specialist food and drink marketing and
branding company based in London. Over the last 13 years, Brand Relations has been
behind the launch and development of over 100 brands in the UK. Richard has also built up
and sold companies of his own in the Food and Beverage sector. He has over 30 years’
experience in marketing FMCG brands around the world, having lived and worked in the UK,
USA, Australia and the Middle East.