Dehydrating Innovation in Europe: EFSA and Beverage Innovation

One of the hottest areas for innovation globally is in improved foods and beverages that benefit human health. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are among the biggest barriers that innovators face in this field. In the United States, something as uncontroversial as the well-known relationship between citrus fruit and scurvy (that is, citrus fruit can prevent or help cure scurvy) becomes a dangerous proposition in the hands of a bureaucrat. One VP with a major global food company explained to me that selling an orange with the claim that it “may help prevent scurvy” could get you thrown in jail in the U.S. under the strict rules of the FDA, rules which make it exceedingly difficult to pursue innovation in food, no matter how strong the science is. But the innovation barriers from regulations in the U.S. may be dwarfed by those that are metastasizing in Europe, especially under the heavy hand of the EFSA (European Food Standards Authority). The fantasy land of bureaucrat anti-imagination in Europe is so other-worldly that you can become a criminal for claiming that “water may help prevent dehydration.” Incredible? Impossible? Here’s what Victoria Ward and Nick Collins report in The Telegraph, Nov. 18, 2011 (excerpt):

EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration
Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.

EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.

Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.

Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.

“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.

“If ever there were an episode which demonstrates the folly of the great European project then this is it.”

NHS health guidelines state clearly that drinking water helps avoid dehydration, and that Britons should drink at least 1.2 litres per day….

German professors Dr Andreas Hahn and Dr Moritz Hagenmeyer, who advise food manufacturers on how to advertise their products, asked the European Commission if the claim could be made on labels.

They compiled what they assumed was an uncontroversial statement in order to test new laws which allow products to claim they can reduce the risk of disease, subject to EU approval.

They applied for the right to state that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration” as well as preventing a decrease in performance.

However, last February, the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) refused to approve the statement.

A meeting of 21 scientists in Parma, Italy, concluded that reduced water content in the body was a symptom of dehydration and not something that drinking water could subsequently control.

Now the EFSA verdict has been turned into an EU directive which was issued on Wednesday.

Ukip MEP Paul Nuttall said the ruling made the “bendy banana law” look “positively sane”.

He said: “I had to read this four or five times before I believed it. It is a perfect example of what Brussels does best. Spend three years, with 20 separate pieces of correspondence before summoning 21 professors to Parma where they decide with great solemnity that drinking water cannot be sold as a way to combat dehydration.

“Then they make this judgment law and make it clear that if anybody dares sell water claiming that it is effective against dehydration they could get into serious legal bother.

EU regulations, which aim to uphold food standards across member states, are frequently criticised.

Rules banning bent bananas and curved cucumbers were scrapped in 2008 after causing international ridicule.

The ruling is more than merely laughable. For those on the cutting edge of advanced foods and beverages, it is an ominous sign of the innovation fatigue from government that is increasingly strangling Europe and much of the Western world. The inability to make reasonable, scientifically-supported claims about the benefits of healthy foods and beverages is one that will stifle innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe. I’d rather have to do my own homework to understand the validity of health claims than to have bureaucrats completely stifle innovation in health-promoting goods. Give me the Wild West of unrestrained innovation, with all the risks and bad claims that might follow, rather than a sterile 1984 society in Oceania which hordes of bureaucrats protect me from myself and everything new. But between those two extremes are many healthy, democratic alternatives in which sound legislation reduces the most egregious crimes while allowing innovators for the most part to move forward.

Here in China, where some of the best beverages in the world are to be found, I’m happy to say that soft-drink entrepreneurs appear to still have the freedom to declare that aqueous beverages reduce thirst and help prevent dehydration. Watch for the world’s epicenter of food and beverage innovation to increasingly shift toward China, if it’s not already firmly rooted here.

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