Novel food in Europe amid innovation and food security

Novel food in Europe amid innovation and food security

Novel food in Europe amid innovation and food security

The start of 2018 saw the introduction of the new European regulation on what is referred to as “novel food”, new food for the tables of the old continent that need to comply with specific food security requirements. 

These days, you can find lots of "novel" and "strange" foods that are not part of European culinary traditions or which didn't even exist until a few years ago on the tables and in stores across the European Community. These include, for instance, baobab (Adansonia digitata) dried fruit pulp, Chromium(III) picolinate, chia (Salvia hispanica) seeds, which all fall under the definition of “novel food”, under close scrutiny by the institutions who want to guarantee innovation, cultural exchange and sustainability, without however forgoing food security

New or traditional?

European history is packed with examples of novel food which were launched on the market and subsequently went on to become so commonplace that they are considered outright local: tomatoes, corn, rice, bananas and tropical fruit reached the old continent from faraway places, and have now become an integral part of the culinary traditions in many European countries. 

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Yet at regulatory level, there is a very specific definition that the European Commission implements when identifying a novel food. In fact, novel food “ is defined as food that had not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before 15 May 1997, when the first Regulation on novel food came into force”. The definition does not only include existing food that is new for Europe, but also innovative food, which has been developed and produced using new technologies. The category of novel food also includes “traditional food”, in other words food that is eaten regularly and considered traditional in other areas of the world, outside Europe. 

A brand new regulation

The path a new food has to travel to reach the European market is distinguished by a series of checks which the EU puts into place to ensure that each and every novel food complies with three main characteristics: it needs to be safe for consumers, properly labeled so as not to mislead consumers and, if it has been conceived to replace another, it must not differ in a way that the consumption of the Novel Food would be nutritionally disadvantageous for the consumer. Based on these three underpinning principles, each novel food undergoes pre-market evaluation after obtaining a specific authorization. These rules and all those concerning food security and the procedures required to approve a food as novel food are contained in EU Regulation 2015/2283, which replaces EC Regulations No. 258/97 and 1852/2001 in force until 31 December 2017. “The new regulation was set up to improve current conditions, so that new and innovative food can be introduced in Europe with simpler procedures, while retaining a high degree of food security for consumers” states the European Commission. As the experts explain, this regulation offers European citizens the possibility to enjoy broader food choices and it creates a more favorable environment for the agrifood sector, which can thus benefit from innovation, which is fundamental for growth and employment. 

From insects to nanomaterials

One of the novelties introduced by the new regulation is the creation of a central authorization system, which guarantees greater simplicity and a speedier authorization process for anyone wishing to introduce a novel food. The risk assessment is entrusted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the body headquartered in Parma, in Italy, in charge of ensuring everything that reaches European tables is not harmful to human health. A careful scientific evaluation is therefore necessary before authorization for trade and, if you look at the enormous variety of novel foods, it is easy to understand how these procedures need to be specific and targeted for each product. To have an idea of this complexity, simply take a look at the list of novel foods that have already been authorized and which the European Commission publishes on its website and regularly updates as soon as new foods are approved. Next to the now well-known chia seeds, you will in fact find extracts of seaweeds, vegetable oils derived from plants that cannot be found in Europe, such as Allanblackia oil and others derived from small animals that swim the Northern oceans, such as Calanus finmarchicus. To finish off, there are also foods and nutrients obtained via special treatments (such as UV rays) or which include nanomaterials, tiny particles that measure 100 nanometers or less.

Although the sustainability of "novel food" is not part of the essential criteria to obtain authorization, the new regulation, unlike its predecessor, takes it into consideration during the approval process. The environmental impact and economic sustainability of production are therefore elements which make up the dossier that the experts have to compile to ensure the novel food reaches our tables.


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