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Government 'has given in to EU ban on health food supplements'

By Colin Brown, Deputy Political Editor
03 January 2005

Ministers were accused of hypocrisy yesterday over an EU directive which could force health shops to stop selling a number of remedies and food supplements used by cancer sufferers and obese people.

The row is over attempts by the EU to ban food supplements and vitamin-based products which could be harmful in large doses, and for which the makers have made exaggerated health claims. But campaigners including Carole Caplin, the self-styled health and lifestyle guru, and the actress Jenny Seagrove say hundreds of remedies will be included in the ban.

Ms Caplin told MPs at a protest meeting that the directive will ban the sale of supplements containing calcium, magnesium and boron used for strengthening brittle bones and by patients with hip replacements; nutrient supplements and antioxidants for cancer sufferers; food supplements to reduce obesity; and folic acid supplements for women to reduce neural tube defects such as spina bifida in babies.

Health ministers have assured consumers, retailers and manufacturers of health foods that they are doing all they can to ensure safe remedies are not banned.

But EU documents obtained by The Independent reveal that the Government's lawyers have said the UK does not dispute the basis for the new regulations that threaten the sale of many health food products.

In a submission to the European Court of Justice, where a case is being heard, officials from the Treasury solicitor's office said the new rules were not disproportionate and did not breach the principle of subsidiarity, which allows the UK to determine its own rules.

Furious campaigners accused the Government of hypocrisy. Sue Croft, the director of Consumers for Health Choice, said: "The Government is saying one thing to consumers, to industry and to Parliament while pursuing quite a different course in its negotiations with the EU."

The organisation is threatening to raise the issue in marginal Labour seats in the general election to put pressure on the Government.

Ms Caplin told MPs the Government had said it was committed to improving public health but its strategy was made a nonsense by ignoring the threat to safe and effective products.

Ms Seagrove said EU officials have professed profound scepticism at the suggestion that there were up to 300 missing nutrients from its approved list. She accused the Health minister, Melanie Johnson, of having "no interest in supplements" saying she had "consistently failed to act on behalf of the 21 million British consumers who use them".

The Food Supplements Directive will outlaw products containing ingredients not on its list of permitted substances. The list was drawn up for baby foods. The campaigners say there is no evidence that the ingredients are unsafe for adults. But the UK lawyers said the list was a "suitable starting point" for the regulations.

Chris Grayling, the Tory health spokesman, who is backing the campaigners, said: "This is sheer hypocrisy by the Government."

Ms Johnson, who has led the negotiations with the health food industry, said the UK could exempt products, if a detailed dossier reasoning why was submitted by the manufacturers. But all the ingredients that might be exempted must have been on the market before the directive was adopted in July 2002, she said.

The directive lists 28 vitamins and minerals and 112 sources from which they were derived for use in food supplements, which can be sold legally after it comes into force on 1 August.