Shortcomings in product selections and information provided by online shops
In a study conducted by Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira, unauthorised medicinal claims were found in the marketing of a total of 59 food supplements sold online. Unauthorised novel foods were sold in 35 online shops.
Evira participated in EU's first common control project of distance selling of foods in the autumn of 2017. Online shopping sites targeted at Finnish consumers were searched for unauthorised novel foods and medicinal marketing on foods related to bone and joint health.
Medicinal marketing of foods misleads consumers
Medicinal claims related to osteoporosis or arthritis were found in 59 online shops selling food supplements. Of these online shops, 49 were Finnish, 9 shops were located in another Member State, and 1 was an online shop from the USA. In the case of 5 online shops, the responsible operator could not be identified.
Food supplements are foods and they may not be marketed using medicinal claims, such as "prevents osteoporosis", "treats osteoarthritis", "cures joint inflammation", or "reduces joint pain". Properties related to curing, treating, or preventing diseases can only be attributed to medicines.
"It is advisable to be critical if the effect promised in an advertisement or in the labelling sounds very medicinal. It may be an attempt to deceive the consumer", says Senior Officer Marjo Misikangas from Evira.
Only authorised nutrition and health claims may be made on foods. Foods do not go through the authorisation procedure which is required of medicines for the assessment of their composition and effect before the medicine is placed on the market. The composition and marketing of foods is not controlled until after they have been placed on the market.
Novel food status requires history of use or authorisation procedure
The searches made in the online shops concerned agmatine sulphate as well as Acacia rigidula, Epimedium grandiflorum and Hoodia gordonii plants. They are all non-authorised novel foods, i.e., their safety when used as food has not been verified. They were found in the selection of 35 online shops. Agmatine sulphate was the one found most, with products containing it on sale in 20 online shops. Nine of them were Finnish online shops. Agmatine sulphate is used in e.g. products intended for sportsmen.
Products containing Epimedium grandiflorum plant were found in four online shops, of which three were Finnish. Acacia rigidula plant was on sale in one online shop, as was also the Hoodia gordonii plant. Both of these were foreign online shops. In the case of 9 online shops, the responsible operator could not be identified.
Novel foods refer to foods with no traditional history of food use within the EU prior to 1997. Novel foods can only be placed on the market through an authorisation procedure to ensure their safety.
Responsibility lies with domain name registrant
The responsibility for the compliance of the foods marketed in an online shop as well as for the information provided on them lies with the food business that has registered the domain name. Where prohibited products were found in the online shop of a business that had registered the domain name in Finland, a control request was forwarded to the municipal food control authority in the domicile of the food business.
Effective cooperation between authorities in EU
For control of online shops located in other Member States, assistance was requested from the authorities of the Member State concerned through EU's Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food (RASFF) or EU's Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system (AAC). The European Commission was notified about online shops the responsible operator of which was assessed to be located outside the EU. Evira will continue the development of the control of E commerce in Finland and will actively participate in cooperation at EU level.
For more information, please contact:
Marjo Misikangas, Senior Officer, tel. +358 50 462 4078 (medicinal claims)
Sari Sippola, Senior Officer, tel. +358 50 386 8430 (development of control of E commerce)