Shake up to the Novel Foods Regime

Print publication


New rules on novel foods and novel food ingredients came into force on 1 January 2018 as a result of updated EU legislation. It is hoped that the new rules will reduce the time it takes to get novel foods authorised thereby encouraging innovation within the food industry.

Throughout history new foods have entered Europe from far flung parts of the world. Coffee, tea, rice and sugar are now mainstream products but when they first arrived on the trading ships they would certainly have been classed as novel. More recently acai berries, chia seeds, quinoa and moringa pods have started to appear on the supermarket shelves. In addition, locusts, crickets and other insects are a significant source of protein in other parts of the world and it might not be long before we see them being eaten in this country.

Regulators are obviously keen to ensure that novel foods are safe to eat and so the introduction of such foods is governed by EU legislation. Novel foods are subject to a safety assessment to authorise them before they are allowed to be placed on the market in the EU. Up until the start of this year, novel foods were governed by Regulation EC 258/97. The definition of a novel food under the regulation was one which had not been “used for human consumption to a significant degree” in the EU before May 1997. Unfortunately this was a rather subjective definition and approvals would take on average three and a half years to obtain. Approval was a two stage process whereby a preliminary assessment was undertaken in the country of application followed by endorsement by all EU member states.

The new regime which came into force on 1 January 2018 is intended to bring some much needed clarity on what exactly is a novel food and also speed up the approval process. The changes brought in by Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 hope to achieve the following:

  • quicker delivery of approvals by the creation of a centralised authorisation system. Individual member states will no longer be involved
  • a simpler means of dealing with foods that are traditional in other countries
  • a generic approval for the novel food rather than an approval being granted to each applicant.

The last bullet point may have significant practical implications. Under the old system only the food business that applied for authorisation could use the authorisation and details of the application were kept confidential. This meant that any information about where an ingredient was sourced or how it was processed was kept secret. In addition since only the applicant could use the authorisation, they had a monopoly on sales of the novel food until another business applied for their own authorisation (on the basis that their product was ‘substantially equivalent’ to the approved food).

Under the new system authorisations will be industry wide and so once a food business has applied for authorisation, all of its competitors will be able to make use of any resulting approval. Although the legislators view this as opening up the approvals process, food businesses may be discouraged from investing in the development of novel foods if they believe that their competitors can ride along on their coattails.

WM Comment

The new regulation has direct effect in the UK and does not need to be transposed into law by the UK government. Clearly the new regime is an EU initiative and it is unclear what effect Brexit will have on the legislation. It is possible that leaving the EU will encourage the government to look again at the novel foods regime and see whether it really does promote the development of new and innovative products. In the meantime it may be useful to speak to our Intellectual Property team to ensure that any proprietary information is protected before you embark on authorisation using the new regime.