Novel Food Legislation

Source: flickr, Author: R. Casalnuovo

Have you ever wondered, why markets in overseas offer a much broader variety of exotic fruits and vegetables for example, or products that are based on exotic ingredients? Well yes, there might be a couple of reasons, apart from the fact, that they just don’t grow in Europe. Market imperfections, insufficient supply chains, inadequate quality, high transaction costs and maybe simply a different taste. However, from an European perspective, one of the strongest barriers is a legal one:

Tomatoes, maize, potatoes, beans… a lot of foods that actually constitute an essential part of our diet would probably not have been allowed to enter Europe if the EU Novel Food legislation, Regulation (EC) No 258/97 would have been active back in the 16th century. The what…?

In a nutshell: the above mentioned legislation which is active since 1997 basically states, that novel foods or novel food ingredients that have no history of “significant” consumption in the European Union prior to 15 May 1997 must be authorised by the EU.

It’s purpose is clear: it shall serve as a regulatory framework to protect consumers in Europe from harmful foods or substances. What is reasonable for food that has been biologically modified, new compounds or modified molecules, just doesn’t work for exotic fruits and vegetables.

The regulation fails to differentiate between completely new foods that have not been consumed before because they are maybe artificially created, and those that are just new to Europe. These latter foods might have been successfully consumed by people in other parts of the world for centuries or even thousands of years. Under the novel food regulation, a lot of scientific data is now required to prove the safety of these foods. That poses a barrier to market introduction, because of the time and costs involved. Producers, processers, exporters, importers, basically nobody is able to bare these costs and to go through the time consuming process.

Remarkably, these foods often originate from developing countries and are a product of the rich biodiversity of these countries. In most of these countries, the banned foods are often traditional foods, that have been used for centuries and are part of the local diet. Further, sustainable use of biodiversity and access and benefit sharing are some of the goals for a sustainable and equitable future of our planet, as formulated in agreements such as the Millenium Development Goals. Hence, the novel food regulation is somehow also working against these goals.

These exotic, or ’neglected crops‘, or underutilized species‘ as they are sometimes called are mostly cultivated by small scale farmers in developing countries. They even grow on poor land, need less or no fertilizers or herbizides, and most often provide better nutritional values than the so called ‚major crops‘. Additionally, these foods are often part of the rich agro-biodiversity in developing countries. So cultivation and sustainable use of these foods would also foster the protection of biodiversity as most of these ‚minor crops‘ grow in sound ecosystems. The conservation of the worlds biodiversity is one of the Millenium Development Goals. There also have been studies lately about the economic value of the worlds biodiversity and the financial impact the loss of biodiversity will have.

Even organisations like the German GIZ are supporting biotrade projects, that aim to sustainably produce products from biodiversity and ensure access and benefit sharing for local producers. With the only downside: the products are marketed in the US not in the EU. Funded by the German taxpayer.

Reading about this regulation, one must think, that exotic foods are generally harmful and that consumers are hesitant to adopt new products. Seeing the current development, quite the contrary is the case. The demand for healthier, more nutritious and sustainably produced exotic foods has risen during the last couple of years. Internet shops and health food stores are mushrooming and people are more and more interested in a diverse and healthy diet. Fruits like açaí, acerola, guaraná, maca or noni are getting more and more popular. In the case of noni juice for example, it took the company 3 years and a lot of money to be able to provide the necessary data for authorisation under the EU novel food regulation.

To sum it up: a lot of exotic foods that grow in developing countries are considered „novel foods“ in the EU and hence, marketing is prohibited. Simultanously, production of most of these foods can generate sustainable livelihoods for producers in developing countries. A sustainable use of these underutilized species might also foster sound ecosystems and protect biodiversity. Consumers in the EU are looking for new products and alternatives, creating demand.

Solution: to adapt the EU novel food regulation accordingly to exempt exotic foods, or cancel it completely, as most of the topics such as GMO are covered elsewhere.

Further reading: „The impact of the European Novel Food Regulation on trade and food innovation based on traditional plant foods from developing countries.“ (M. Hermann)