A judge will deliver the first legal verdict today in a battle over new European health food laws.
The British health food industry is fighting EU measures it says will ban thousands of common food supplements and bankrupt many suppliers.
Now, after a January hearing in Luxembourg, the European Court of Justice’s Advocate-General is announcing his interim “opinion” ahead of a final ruling expected before the August deadline for the introduction of the contested rules.
The controversial “Food Supplements Directive” is designed to tighten controls on the growing market in products sold under the health food heading - natural remedies, vitamin supplements and mineral plant extracts.
The Directive was approved by EU governments in 2002, and health food manufactures were given until July 12 this year to submit detailed scientific dossiers proving their ingredients were safe.
But lawyers for the British Health Food Manufacturers Association (HFMA) the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS) and the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) argued in the European Court that the costs of complying would be prohibitive for many small firms which had supplied safe health foods for years.
In Britain, the judges were told, the EU legislation threatened 5,000 products containing more than 200 nutrients, long used safely in specialist supplements, but now blighted because they were not on the “positive list” of permitted substances.
The plans caused controversy from the start, prompting a petition of more than one million signatures, a letter of protest to Tony Blair from more than 300 doctors and scientists, and motions opposing the Euro-law from both Houses of Parliament.
The health food industry launched its legal action in the UK courts, opposing the UK government’s transposition of the EU Directive into domestic law.
UK judges said the case amounted to a challenge to the Directive itself, and sent the case to the EU judges.
Andrew Lockley, head of public law at Irwin Mitchell and legal adviser to the HFMA and NAHS, said the case had roused strong feelings in the UK where millions of people opposed curbs on their freedom to chose what they ate.
He went on: “If the Directive takes effect, the regulatory costs on suppliers will be disproportionate and may lead to bankruptcies.”
Legislation on public health issues is normally left to member states, unless EU-wide measures are deemed necessary to protect consumer health.
The British health food lobbyists insist there is no widespread consumer welfare issue and that such legislation should be up to member states themselves.
One third of UK women and a quarter of men take health food supplements in a market estimated to be worth at least £335m (€490m) a year. On the continent, however, health food products are traditionally treated more like medicines.
The opinion from the Advocate-General is not legally-binding on the rest of the European Court judges, but is followed by the full court in a majority of final rulings.