Baby steps: NZ still sluggish on supplement regulations, despite backing role in COVID care

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

The New Zealand government does not permit the labelling of therapeutic claims on health supplements. ©Getty Images
The New Zealand government does not permit the labelling of therapeutic claims on health supplements. ©Getty Images

Related tags Health claims Export Trade

The New Zealand government is starting to recognise the therapeutic benefits of natural health products, but the country is still a long way from making therapeutic claims product labelling a reality, says the country’s industry body.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health recently published an Isolation Plan for COVID-19 . A checklist​ that named the use of certain natural health products for therapeutic benefits was included.

“Drinks and other medications that help with cold and flu-like symptoms, like lemon tea with honey, cough syrup,” ​was one of the statements in the checklist.

The announcement also encouraged the public to try “hot lemon and honey or kawakawa tea”, “cough syrup or soothing lozenges” ​for coughs, sore throats, or blocked noses.

This move has come as a “pleasant surprise”,​ Samantha Gray, Natural Health Products NZ’s government affairs director told NutraIngredients-Asia.

This is because the NZ government does not allow natural health products to make therapeutic claims – a rule which applies to products sold in the local market and also overseas.

The NZ natural health products industry has been pushing for reforms​ to allow therapeutic claims on the products, but few progresses has been seen.

Gray told us that the industry was “very encouraged”​ that the government was recognising that certain natural health products could be beneficial.

“Natural Health Products NZ does not endorse the use of natural health products for the treatment or prevention of serious diseases such as Covid-19.

“[However], we are encouraged to see the government recommending natural health ingredients and that the government is acknowledging the role of natural health products in symptomatic relief in line with the global view.”

Nonetheless, she cautioned that there was still a long way to formal reforms.

A Natural Health Products Bill (previously known as the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill) was first proposed in 2011 – which would allow the expression of therapeutic claims – but this has been on the back burner since 2017 due to a change in government.

Moreover, the Ministry of Health documents have stated that "natural health products are not therapeutic products and will not be regulated as such". 

This means that the product claims are likely to be very limited under the proposed Bill. 

The latest status, Gray pointed out, was that the Natural Health Products Bill would be read as part of the Therapeutic Products and Medicines Bill, and this would only happen later this year.

“We continue to be frustrated that regulations are lagging so far behind a common sense approach to utilisation of natural health products for everyday health and wellbeing.

“The reading of the bill later this year is only the beginning of the process to reform.

It is likely we will be waiting for years before this changes – this is simply not good enough.”

A call to align with Australia, Canada

The Natural Health Products NZ is urging the government to amend the Therapeutic Products Bill to align with the claims that are permitted in Canada and Australia.

The two countries were cited as they are known for setting high standards in the way they assess permitted claims.  

“Aligning this country’s permitted claims for NHPs (natural health products) with Australia’s and Canada’s will quickly resolve our sector’s export market roadblocks by enabling us to compete effectively in the global market,”​ the industry body said.

Trade concerns

The Natural Health Products NZ is also concerned that the out-of-date regulations could undermine its standing in international trade.

Unfortunately, our industry is still held back by out-of-date regulations preventing exported products from meeting labelling, composition and health claim requirements of international markets. 

“Many millions of dollars of export opportunity continue to be lost each year due to this anomaly. 

“Other countries permit export-only exemptions to facilitate trade but New Zealand does not… It is a ridiculous situation that we still have this outdated and anomalous barrier to trade,”​ it said in a statement.

Last October, New Zealand signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with the UK, but the export potential of natural health products could be affected by the inability to make therapeutic claims.

The Natural Health Products NZ said it was calling upon the ministers to permit an export-only exemption, in light of the FTA signed with UK.  

“The UK is currently New Zealand’s 5th​ largest export market overall, however exports of natural health products to the UK compared with other countries such as Australia who have export only exemptions already in place are tiny. There is huge scope for export growth in our sector and we need government to enable this,”​ it said.

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