Insights from Probiota 2023

Probiotic players must lobby for change as consumers want transparency and education, experts say

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Marian Vejcik
Getty | Marian Vejcik

Related tags Probiotics microbiome Regulation Education

Consumers are keen to learn about probiotics and see the word on packaging, but EU regulation still leaves industry's hands tied with no harmonisation and poor institutional education.

This was the message provided by regulatory experts during Probiota 2023 in Barcelona earlier this week (Feb 6-8).

Delegates heard that more European countries are moving to allow the use of the term 'probiotic' on packaging, notably Spain, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria, and most recently, and most recently France.

Rosanna Pecere, executive director at IPA Europe, provided updates from the committee, starting with the results of their recent survey of consumers​ across eight European countries.

The survey revealed that consumers would like to be more informed about probiotics via labelling on food and food supplements. 

In fact, when asked "do you think you are informed about probiotics in products?", between 45% and 69% of consumers said ‘no’.

Poland was the only market with a bigger group of people feeling informed (55% vs 45%), while Denmark stood out as ‘only’ 31% of the population said they felt informed.

When asked "would you like to see the term ‘probiotic’ on products?", the majority said ‘yes’, with a sizeable 90% of consumers in Italy and Spain affirming.

Pecere said there is a need for political pressure to allow use of this term.

“REFIT, an expert group coordinated by the Secretary General of the EC, issued a report recommending to improve harmonisation of the use of the term ‘probiotic’ to provide clarity and consumers.

“This type of pressure, combined with the national initiatives, could become enough to launch a review of the regulation.”

Discussing the need for better education of probiotics within healthcare curriculum, George Paraskevakos, IPA executive director, said the IPA recently implemented a probiotics education module for Naturopathy students at Sonoran University of Health Sciences, in Arizona, which is hoped to become a regular part of the curriculum there. 

He said a pre-course student survey reaffirmed there is very little knowledge of probiotics within healthcare.

Some quotes from students included: “Before I did not care too much about probiotics, but I realise they can be used more than I knew.”

Another student stated: “Education about probiotics needs to happen at an institutional education level.”

French decision on ‘probiotic’ signals hope

Claire Guignier, public affairs and communication manager at the French food supplements association Synadiet, explained the key factors behind the decision last month to allow use of the term 'probiotic' on packaging in France.

These include the fact several member states in the EU are already using the word and there is a drive for harmonisation, the high consumer interest and the demand for transparency of products, and the fast expanding scientific backing for the health benefits of these products.

She said: “I hope the allowance in France will start more discussions to allow use of the word across the board.”

Describing this inability to use the term 'probiotic' as a 'scandal', Brian Kelly, partner at the multinational law firm Covington and Burling, said: “It’s been a scandal what happened with the term probiotic. When it was introduced in 2008 it was initially erased from the dictionary and it’s taken 12 years or so to bring it back.”

Brexit bonfire

Speaking specifically about the situation in the UK, he added: “You would have thought the UK would be receptive to a means to allow us to use the term as it’s a growth area with consumer demand but there seems to be resistance still to adopting use of the term and that has an impact on trade.”

Discussing the ongoing saga of the 'Brexit bonfire' plan in the UK, he added: “We were promised Brexit would make us more nimble and able to pass legislation more quickly but that hasn’t materialised thanks to capacity issues and a lot of confusion."

He explained there are thousands of pieces of EU legislation to wade through, with politicians having to decide which remain, which are reformed, and which are removed.

"There are more than a hundred pieces of food safety legislation alone.

“Almost every civil servant including those at the top of international trade are having to cancel the business of Brexit to look at which laws should stay and which should go.

“As a lawyer, I feel we will be litigating on Brexit for at least the next 10 years."

He pointed out this is stalling the business opportunities.

“On the business side, its difficult to see why you would invest at this time in the UK when its not at all clear what the legislation will be."

On a positive note, he added that ​there’s a lot of opportunity for potential change.

“In the probiotic context, the question of how to categorise those is back on the agenda.

“There’s a significant push to reform our novel food rules. That regulation in Europe is, in my view, very inconsistently applied and that’s been a real barrier to innovation.

“Too often the default position is that the food is novel when no-one is properly applying the law.

“But generally I think there’s a lot of opportunities for lobbying to push the message of novel food and health claims – there’s a strong debate whether health claims are needed in the UK or should there be some other way of grading health claims because it’s clear its almost impossible to meet the European standard.”


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