It’s been a little over two months since the UK shocked the world with its “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union, and by now experts have had a chance to consider its potential impact on the dietary supplements industry. While much uncertainty still exists, a few key challenges have emerged for ingredient suppliers and manufacturers operating in the UK and/or continental Europe as a result of Brexit. It’s not all bad news, either, as there may also be some new opportunities for growth and innovation in certain markets.
On Tuesday, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN; Washington, DC) hosted a joint webinar on the transition, titled “Brexit Impact on the Marketing of Food Supplements in the EU and the UK.” Due to the unprecedented nature of a Brexit, webinar speakers were careful to note it’s still hard to say exactly what the future of the UK will be after it leaves the EU. It all depends on how economically independent the UK decides to become.
A Few Options
For instance, the UK might leave the EU and instead choose to follow the same model as Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein by joining the European Economic Area (EEA). Under this model, the UK would still be able to participate in the EU internal market and have relatively free movement of goods, services, and persons.
“If the UK went down a Norway or EEA model approach, it’s very unlikely that there’d be any material change to the legal position,” explained Brian Kelly, AHPA-CRN webinar speaker and attorney at Covington & Burling LLP. “The UK’s implementation of EU existing food law would remain valid and the UK could continue to implement future laws, and also, importantly, rely on EU principles of mutual recognition.”
Under this option, which is arguably one of the least disruptive Brexit outcomes, the main problem for the UK would be a loss of influence as it became “relegated to an observer role within key institutions like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” Kelly notes.
Of course, the UK may instead opt for a relationship more similar to what Switzerland currently has, operating under about 130 separately negotiated bilateral treaties with the EU. Or, it could adopt a total free trade approach with no preferential access on the EU market at all. Under these other, non-EEA models, the impact on industry has the potential to be much more dramatic.
Here are a few possible Brexit outcomes to consider.
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Maximum Levels of Vitamins and Minerals
EU politicians have long been at an impasse when it comes to setting maximum levels of vitamins and minerals, with official EU levels still not established due to various political pressures. But with the potential EU departure of the UK—one of the most liberal voices on the issue thanks to its preference for high safety levels—there may be more consensus among the remaining EU member states.
“There could well be the potential that without the UK as an [EU] member, the rest of the member states may now say ‘let’s tackle this issue,” said Simon Pettman, AHPA-CRN webinar speaker and executive director of the International Alliance of Dietary/Food Supplement Associations (IADSA).
While maximum levels in the UK could remain relatively high after Brexit, the EU might then be able to harmonize its maximum levels at a lower threshold.
“Even today, with mutual recognition [of products sold in other member states], several member states accept products which they don’t like,” said Gert Krabichler, PhD, AHPA-CRN webinar speaker and global head of regulatory policy and intelligence for Merck Consumer Health. “But [some EU member states] would push, if it comes to regulation, probably for lower [maximum] levels. So there I definitely see a risk.”
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Botanical ingredients are another area where the UK has taken a stance outside the average of most of the EU. While many EU countries have pushed for botanicals to be more freely incorporated for use in food supplements, the UK has historically supported the more pharmaceutical approach to treating botanicals as traditional herbal medicinal products, IADSA's Pettman said.
Currently, there is little harmonized approach to botanicals in the EU, with each member state allowed to treat botanicals the way it chooses, explained Krabichler. But without the UK in the discussion, it’s possible the rest of the EU might move more toward treating botanicals more like supplements.
“In broad terms, on the continent of Europe, there is quite a lot of support certainly in France, Italy, Belgium, and Central Europe for botanicals to be incorporated, let’s say a more free approach, to botanicals to be used in food supplements,” Pettman said.
But even without the UK’s influence in the discussion, reaching consensus among other EU member states may still be difficult, Pettman pointed out.
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One of the more immediate questions Brexit poses is whether companies should start looking into establishing facilities in continental Europe (if they don’t currently have them) and begin relocating away from the UK. That way, a company could be prepared in case the UK is in fact removed from the EU single market under one of the non-EEA options.
“Just on a practical level, you could look, for example, at the products you have which are being imported into the UK perhaps with a view to the EU entry point, and just check the supply-chain arrangements that you have to see whether the distribution of those products can easily be switched to a buyer or different member state,” Covington & Burling’s Kelly said. However, for the time being, he says it may be best just to “watch and wait.”
In the meantime, companies may actually find it more attractive to stay in the UK as the recent drop in the pound allows for relatively low manufacturing costs, Merck Consumer Health’s Krabichler noted.
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The Future of EFSA
Despite the sense among many pro-Brexit UK voters that the UK has little influence over EU policy, Brexit could have a particularly substantial impact on the European Food Safety Authority. That’s because more than 30% of the scientists involved in EFSA are either UK nationals or located in the UK, according to IADSA’s Pettman.
“The question is, what will their role be in the future? Will [UK scientists] be just observers? Will EFSA find a way to involve them?” Pettman said.
Depending on which Brexit option the UK chooses, the UK may even have to create its own scientific body, although EFSA would still likely retain its prestigious position.
“EFSA’s positioned itself so strongly as a primary scientific body in Europe and a lead body in the world, and that will not change if the UK is in or out,” Pettman said.
One upside to being out of EFSA, however, might be that the UK would then be free to allow for greater innovation. For instance, health claims for whole grains and heart health have been rejected in the EU because the many member states weren’t able to get past the “technical harmonizing issues” of defining whole grain, Covington & Burling’s Kelly explained. Potentially, the UK has the opportunity to become a nimbler innovation center on these kinds of issues once outside the EU.
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