Despite fierce lobbying which at one stage caused the European Parliament's email system to crash, MEPs yesterday voted to approve plans for a tightening of the safety controls for vitamin supplements.
Such was the level of vitriol unleashed against Emilia Mueller, the MEP who proposed the legislation, that Parliament also took the unprecedented step of opening an investigation into the lobbying - not to say bullying - tactics of some of the bill's opponents.
The new legislation means that manufacturers of food supplements containing vitamins and minerals have three years to provide the European legislators with full details of the ingredients used in the supplements.
Once they have been submitted, they will then be assessed for safety in accordance with existing scientific guidelines and maximum levels will then be set.
Manufacturers will also be obliged to provide detailed labelling on bottles and packaging to give consumers clear daily dosage instructions. They will also have to carry a warning about the dangers of excessive use.
The rules are logical in that they bring dietary supplements under the same kind of safety controls as food and medicines, but they have faced stern opposition from an extremely vocal minority who have claimed that many products currently available for use will now be banned.
The European Commission has strongly refuted these claims, saying that only those products which are not found to be safe will be removed from sale. This, the Commission argued, was clearly in the interest of consumers throughout the Union, and that any product which was natural and safe had nothing to fear.
Not everyone agreed, however, and one Dutch vitamin supplement supplier is said to have bombarded the European Parliament with emails claiming that the increased cost of submitting the ingredients for assessment would push many producers and retailers out of business.
Other opponents said that they feared the maximum levels set by the European authorities would err on the low side, forcing manufacturers to reformulate their products and obliging consumers to buy more in order to obtain the same dose.
Reports claim that some 300 nutrients currently used in supplements are not included on the initial list of permitted substances, but these reports have been dismissed by some people in the industry.
"As far as we are aware, there are nowhere near 300 substances on the list" said Simon Pettman of IADSA, an organisation which represents national dietary supplement associations across Europe. "There are perhaps 30 or so substances currently on the list for approval by the Commission's Scientific Committee on Food, and there will almost certainly be more, but by no means as many as 300."
The problem is that the most vociferous individuals have been those who are opposed to the regulations, Pettman said, giving the impression that there is widespread discontent with the ruling. "I think it is safe to say that of the 21 or so national associations which we represent in Europe, 17 are delighted with the rules, a couple are neutral and the rest have some slight concerns.
"Even those who are not 100 per cent happy with the rules - for example, we know of some concerns about the way in which the dossiers have to be submitted to the SCF and the costs that might entail - nonetheless realise that they are necessary and inevitable - it is perhaps more in the detail of how they are to be implemented that the concerns arise."
Pettman said that the lawmakers could perhaps have decided to set the maximum limits for nutrients from the outset, rather than going through the lengthy procedure of obliging companies to submit details and then assess them. "But if they had done this, I suppose we would simply have been arguing about the limits instead," he added. "The way they have chosen is not perhaps the ideal way, but all things considered it is perhaps the most practical."
Some of the organisations lobbying against the directive have accused IADSA of not doing enough to stand up for its members, but Pettman explained that they had misunderstood what the organisation's role was.
"About 98 per cent of our European members are in favour of the rules. Of course, this means that 2 per cent are opposed, but we cannot take sides with either party. In the UK, for example, there has been a lot of press coverage condemning the regulations, but most of our members there are in favour of the rules. The coverage in Britain is simply another example of Euro-bashing that the UK press enjoys so much."
He added that it was hard to understand why opponents were so active now, right at the end of the decision-making procedure, when the proposal had first been put forward in May 2000. "That was the time to scream and shout, not now! In any case, it is hard to understand why there is so much opposition to regulations which will bring greater safety and clarity to the industry.
"It is true that some of the concerns raised by lobbyists are genuine and need to be addressed. But the way they have gone about putting their case makes them look like extremists and does little or nothing to promote their cause."
He concluded: "One argument I have seen is that the whole directive is a plot by the major pharmaceutical companies to price the smaller players out of the market. That is tosh - the vast majority of the vitamins produced are made by these same major players who will themselves be subject to the same regulations. They may well be able to shoulder the additional costs more easily than smaller players, but to accuse them of conspiring is frankly ludicrous."
The European Commission also welcomed the decision to approve the legislation. "The aim of this legislation is to put consumer safety and informed consumer choice first, and to solve the problems manufacturers currently face in marketing their products due to diverging national rules," said David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.
"Consumers across Europe will have a wide range of safe products available from which to choose, which is not the case in quite a few member states today. The aim of the directive is not to ban food supplements as some lobbies have misled consumers to believe. Some people find they need food supplements to compensate for their inadequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals. Labels must give them clear information about how to use and how not to use them. We also must make sure that the chemical substances used to produce vitamins and mineral supplements are safe and subject to independent scientific assessment."
"These principles of food safety and transparent information as outlined in the White Paper on Food Safety apply here as they do to all other food products. It must however be clear that a varied diet remains the best approach to achieving good health.