Special investigation

Nil by mouth

For thousands of Britons battling the debilitating effects of cancer, depression, even eczema, diet is crucial. They view the vitamins and minerals they take as vital in their fight against sickness. So why does the EU want to cut off their supply? Rose Shepherd makes the case for rescuing remedies

Sunday February 29, 2004
The Observer

By Rose Shepherd

In the 21st century we live under siege. There are concerns about pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, GM, mobile phones, microwaves, amalgam fillings, falling sperm counts, mad cows, MMR - even milk. Farmed salmon is a Trojan horse for carcinogens. Obesity and diabetes are on the march. There is a mass of documentation on all this. So what is the European Commission's big idea? 'Let's clamp down on vitamins and minerals.'

It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. While the EU has been busy drafting legislation, we seem to have been sleepwalking into a situation where chemists and health stores will be purged of hundreds of nutritional supplements.

I'm sorry, maybe you are alert to this already. Maybe you have written to your MEP, marched with the Health Freedom Movement, joined the Alliance for Natural Health or Consumers for Health Choice. Tens of thousands of people have been railing against this infringement of their rights, this insult to their intelligence and, not least, this threat to their health. The psychotherapist, writer and long-time cancer survivor Beata Bishop, author of A Time to Heal speaks for many when she says, 'I feel passionately angry about this.' I myself have been surprised, though, by how many others seem neither to know nor to care about any of what is afoot - and, still more, by the complaisance of some commentators.

What is at issue is couched in soothing terms in three EU directives. First, the Food Supplements Directive (FSD), under the guise of harmonisation, creates a restricted list of vitamins and minerals, effectively a 'positive list' of allowable nutrients. EU member states will be mandated to market these 'harmonised' supplements, facilitating trade.

However, from August 2005, nutrients not on the list will be banned. This may be good news for states in which the sales and dosages of supplements have hitherto been severely restricted, but it's bad news for the UK, where our regulators have long regarded food supplements as foods, not medicines. We face losing some 270 nutrient supplements, including 40 trace elements, most forms of the more bioavailable organic minerals, and most food-state vitamins. And it doesn't end with vitamins and minerals. By 2007, if not before, the directive requires the European Commission to put forward proposals for a similar list, to apply to all nutrient supplements.

Nor does it stop at nutrients. The Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive (THMPD), now working its way through the EU machine, promises to provide for a 'simplified pharmaceutical registration' for 'herbal medicines' - but only for substances that have been in safe use for 30 years, 15 of them within the EU, singly or in the same combinations. Thus, medicinal herbs in centuries-long use outside the community cannot benefit from the fast-track licence procedure.

The THMPD is a part of the existing Pharmaceuticals Directive, currently being amended to widen the scope of drug classification. According to the amendment, anything that 'restores, corrects or modifies physiological function' in the body will be deemed a drug. The directive will have power to take precedence over both the FSD and THMPD, even though they may all be applicable to the same natural food supplement.

Public safety is cited as the motivating force behind these directives. Their combined effect, however, could be to drive out, degrade or drive underground many of the herbs and nutrients to which some people swear they owe their health. For the 40.9 per cent of us who use supplements to boost nutrition, this is no trivial matter, while to those using herbs and supplements to manage chronic pain or life-threatening disease, it must seem like sabotage. Sceptics dismiss such individuals' experience as 'anecdotal', but when you are your own anecdote, it's hard not to be convinced.

Beata Bishop's book - available from First Stone Publishing, ISBN 1-904439-52-7.- is a testament to the value of a nutrient-rich diet, boosted by supplements. As she wrote in 1985: 'I should have died of malignant melanoma... around June 1981. When my secondary cancer was diagnosed in late 1980, I was suffering from diabetes, incipient osteoarthritis, frequent knockout migraines and dental abscesses.' Today, she is free of these and attributes her recovery to Gerson Therapy, the radical regime under which the body is detoxified and activated with ionised minerals and organic fruit and vegetables, whereupon, it is hoped, the natural healing process kicks in. I don't want to be glib or simplistic about cancer. I know it comes in many guises and has multiple causes. Having lost two grandparents, my father and my partner to it, I am in mortal terror of it. Like most people, irrationally, I fear it more than I do the cardiovascular disease that took my other two grandparents and my mother. I should find it hard to refuse the slash-and-burn approaches to it. But when I try to think of it as being, like heart disease, a degenerative process, I see the wisdom of Gerson.

'I have been described as disgustingly healthy,' Beata Bishop tells me, 'but when I was very, very ill, without those supplements I wouldn't have got well. I believe it's totally wrong to interfere in people's attempts to maintain their health. I'm willing to fight at the barricades if it comes to that, because if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

Or, you might say, if it ain't broke, don't break it. Despite occasional scare stories, the risk of death from food supplements is less than that of being struck by lightning, and significantly less than that of dying of penicillin allergy. Should the EU plans prevail, however, consumers may in future have to resort to the internet, to order products from unregulated sources, with no guarantee of quality or authenticity. It sounds fanciful, but observers are predicting a black market. After next August, if someone sidles up to you and asks if you want to buy some 'E', think mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols, since almost the whole spectrum of naturally occurring vitamin E is off the positive list.

'In my opinion,' says OM columnist Dr John Briffa, 'the proposal to restrict public access to nutritional supplements represents one giant retrograde step for the health of the nation. There is good evidence that the nutritional content of our diet has declined substantially over the past few decades. At the same time, studies exist that show that long-term nutrient supplementation has the potential to prevent a range of conditions, including heart disease, cataracts and certain forms of cancer.'

'We, as a nation, have a huge problem in looking after our people,' says Sue Croft, a director of Consumers for Health Choice, 'and those of us who take the trouble to keep ourselves well should be encouraged. Yet the very tools we need to do so are being taken away from us by Brussels, and our government is standing by and doing nothing.'

'It's disgraceful,' agrees shadow health minister Earl Howe. 'Traditionally, in this country, we've adopted a safety-based approach to licensing products for sale. There's never been any suggestion that our vetting procedures are inadequate in that respect. To have a harmonisation measure foisted upon us for no good reason is a very retrograde step indeed, and consumers will suffer.'

And so we will, one way or another. Consider HRT, associated with an increased breast cancer risk. For this and other reasons, women are turning, in preference, to alternative remedies, at the very time when these remedies seem threatened with extinction. 'The mineral boron is very useful,' says Dr Marilyn Glenville, a specialist in women's health and prolific author. 'There are good clinical trials on its effect on bone health. If you get a good multivitamin that's designed around the menopause, boron will be in there.' But boron is off the positive list, guilty until proved innocent, under European Napoleonic law.

Boron could even now be reprieved. The European Food Safety Authority, a faceless organ of the European Commission, will consider dossiers submitted on banned nutrients. With a deadline of 12 July 2005, however, and with compiling costs of anything from