I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to table this motion which concerns the food supplements directive 2002/46/EC.
A decision by the European Commission is imminent on the setting of maximum permitted levels of food supplements available for open sale. When I speak of food supplements, currently it is the setting of maximum permitted levels of vitamins and minerals for sale on the open market but in time the scope of this directive will extend to other food supplements, including probiotics and other such supplements. The proposed setting of maximum levels will remove higher level supplements from open sale and will mean members of the public who wish to avail of the higher level supplements will be able to do so only by means of prescription.
The Irish Association of Health Stores, which has lobbied me and other public representatives intensely on this issue, believes the rationale behind this is about facilitating the Internal Market without examining the impact on both the restriction of consumer choice and on many retailers, manufacturers and distributors, including health food shops which will be negatively impacted by the setting of maximum levels. It argues that in Ireland's case the use of food supplements has continued for the past 40 years and that there has not been one single documented incident of any adverse impact from the use of the higher levels of these supplements. The Irish Association of Health Stores has collated information on 1,000 peer reviewed studies demonstrating clear benefits from the use of food supplements. It argues that the Commission's reasoning is based on the false premise that higher levels of these nutritional supplements are a greater risk to consumers than lower levels. The association would make the opposite argument that nutrients are essential for our health and well-being, particularly given that the nutrient content of food is lower now because of the lower mineral content of soil and, as people are eating much more processed convenience food, there is a greater need than ever for these higher levels of food supplements.
The potential impact of the introduction of permitted levels will mean a serious restriction of consumer choice and any legislation we pass must balance consumer protection with consumer choice. In this instance it would appear consumer choice is being sacrificed and that there is a false sense of a risk being posed in some way by the current availability of food supplements in our health food stores and through other means, for example, nutritional therapists who recommend these higher levels of food supplements to their patients.
In New Zealand and the United States it is pointed out that much higher levels of food supplements are available to members of the public on the open market. There is concern that if these maximum permitted levels are introduced, which will allow consumers access to only low level food supplements in health food stores and so on, it will lead to consumers turning to more unregulated sources such as ordering them via the Internet and there are real concerns about the safety and quality of supplements sourced in that way.
The purpose of raising this issue is to ask the Minister of State to respond and clarify Ireland's position on this area. I understand the Minister has been lobbied intensively by alternative health practitioners and so on. They have pointed out the likely impacts of this and have asked that Ireland seek a derogation to this part of the directive, namely, the setting of maximum levels. They make the argument that while other member states have not traditionally had high levels of food supplements available to their public, in Ireland and the United Kingdom these food supplements have been available and in the past 40 years not one adverse impact has been documented.
I hope the Minister will give some consideration to the request that Ireland should seek a derogation on these maximum permitted levels, recognising the concern of those involved in alternative medicine that such a move would restrict their businesses and the rights of their consumers to avail of the food supplements, which are in the interests of promoting their overall health and well-being.