Three months after three scientists initiated a petition drive to protest the European Food Safety Authority's rejection of probiotic health claims, 150 researchers have joined the effort.
"It was a spontaneous action born out of frustration in response to the EFSA public hearing in December," explained Ger Rijkers, a medical immunologist at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, The Netherlands."Over breakfast, I met with Bruno Pot (France) and Stephan Bischoff (Germany), and we discussed what our problems were, and saw that they were the same. That's really how it started; it was virtually unorganized."
These "problems" stem from the authority's across-the-board rejection of all health claim proposals involving probiotics and digestive or immune health – despite the fact that since 2002, more than 5,700 papers papers have been published on probiotics' benefits.
Perhaps the most befuddling aspect of EFSA's position is the fact that the individuals who are dismissing these proposed health claims are not mere bureaucrats. They are fellow scientists serving on EFSA's NDA Panel.
"It's awkward to see that colleague scientists with whom you may have cooperated over the years are now on the regulatory side and all of a sudden, they claim to have the authority to re-evaluate peer-reviewed papers that have appeared in scientific literature," Rijkers said. "That's one of our major concerns. We are trained to do biomedical research, peer-reviewed research, and then ultimately, if all is correct, it's published in biomedical literature. But now the NDA is re-evaluating those peer-reviewed publications, and it's totally unclear what criteria they are using to disqualify those publications."
The petition organizers plan to take their petition to the European Commission, which oversees EFSA, in the next couple of weeks. They also plan to ask allies from various European countries to approach their national governments to secure their involvement.
"For example, we'll make a list of Dutch scientists to ask the Dutch government for its support, and so forth," Rijkers said. "We are going to do that for virtually every European country."
Will these efforts make a difference?
"I'm reasonably optimistic that at least a dialogue will be possible," Rijkers said. "It should be possible that we can come to some solutions, because the way it is now going, it is hurting everyone. It is hurting the companies, of course, but it is hurting the consumers because they now don't know what to do, and it's hurting the credibility of EFSA and the NDA Panel, because who will believe a committee that just rejects everything? It is also hurting the science of probiotics."
For his part, Julian Mellentin, market expert at New Nutrition Business, is less optimistic. In a daylong virtual conference on pre- and probiotics, sponsored by Institut Rosell-Lallemand in late March, Mellentin told attendees that EFSA is unlikely to come around anytime soon.
"EFSA seems to be ideologically opposed to probiotics," he said, "so much so that Danone, which has invested enormously in scientific research, has withdrawn their health claims petitions. I don't see the situation in Europe changing anytime soon. If you are trying to get a health claim right now, you can pretty much forget it, because EFSA is not your friend."
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