January 27, 2005

The Times

Pro-drink, anti-vitamins. How's that for a shot in the foot?
Mary Ann Sieghart

THIS IS what your average town centre could look like in a year's time. All night the bars, pubs and clubs will be serving alcohol, and drunken groups will be lurching down the high street in the early hours of the morning, yelling and throwing up in the gutter. By day, sober, responsible citizens will be visiting their local health food shop only to discover that they can no longer buy their favourite vitamin or mineral because the EU, with the connivance of the Government, has banned it.

It's a funny old world, isn't it? People embarking on an early death from cirrhosis of the liver will be encouraged in their efforts by ministers. Yet people who follow the Government's advice to take greater responsibility for their health will be forbidden to do so.

The EU Food Supplements Directive is due to take effect on August 1. As a result, more than 5,000 products will disappear from health stores and more than 300 vitamin and mineral ingredients out of 420 will be banned. The only hope for consumers of these products is a court case being fought by the Alliance for Natural Health, an organisation of manufacturers, retailers, distributors, consumers and practitioners of complementary medicine.

The case has been rushed through the British courts and was considered so strong that the High Court expedited its progress to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), where it was heard yesterday. Shamefully, the British Government joined the Greeks and Portuguese in fighting the Alliance, although UK government lawyers failed to turn up to argue in court.

The directive turns the normal British concept of freedom on its head. Instead of allowing any vitamin or mineral to be sold unless it is has been proved harmful, the directive insists that only those proved to be safe can appear on its “positive list” and thus on the shelves. Yet these are all ingredients that appear in a natural diet and have been eaten without ill effect by human beings for millennia.

For a product to reach the positive list, a huge dossier of evidence will need to be provided by the manufacturer: a cripplingly expensive process that, even according to the UK Government, will cost between £80,000 and £250,000 for each ingredient — far beyond the means of most small manufacturers.

Yesterday, the advocate general of the ECJ, apparently impressed by the Alliance for Natural Health's case, agreed that the procedure for adding nutrients to the positive list was “as transparent as a black box”. This may bode well: his judgment will be published on April 5, and the court judgment in June. In the vast majority of cases, the court supports the judgment of the advocate general.

In other words, it is at least possible that this outrageous ban will be overturned. But that still leaves open the question of why our Government supported it in the first place.

During its passage through the Commons, Labour whips even used bullying tactics to get the ban through. Kate Hoey, a Labour MP, was asked to sit on the committee examining the directive. When she told the whips that she opposed it, they took her off. Other Labour MPs became similarly disenchanted, with similar results. By the end of the deliberations, only three of the original eight Labour members remained on the committee, and still the directive was passed by only eight votes to six.

Peter Hain has argued in Cabinet for greater government support for complementary medicine. Tony Blair supported him. Now the Prime Minister is presiding over a ban that is sure to infuriate the 30 to 40 per cent of adults who take these supplements.

These are people who prefer to keep themselves healthy and use natural means to combat illness than to bother their GP and burden the NHS. They are generally thoughtful citizens who have done their research and want to remedy the deficiencies in minerals and vitamins which are often part of a modern, processed diet.

These people may not have had much interest in politics. They may not have had strong views on Europe. They soon will.

Just as Blair is about to embark on a general election campaign and, soon after that, a referendum on the European constitution, he is wilfully alienating the very section of the population to whom he ought to be appealing. Unless this ban is overturned in the courts, these voters will start to loathe Labour for being bossy and the EU for interfering in their lives.

As I said, it's a funny old world, isn't it?

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1071-1457293,00.html