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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 21/03/2004)

Health stores take a stand to Save Our Supplements
Bureaucrats may safely graze
A man who made a difference
The torching of the orchards

Health stores take a stand to Save Our Supplements

In recent years thousands of British firms have been driven out of business by the cost of rules imposed on them under an ever-mounting pile of EC directives. But last week history was made when a new manufacturing company was set up to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund an industry's fight for survival.

Within two years, more than 1,000 firms are likely to close under the EC's new rules regulating vitamin and food supplements and herbal remedies. Only the largest firms, such as the giant pharmaceutical companies, will be able to afford the millions of pounds necessary to license health products, most of which have been safely used for decades. More than 90 per cent of health products will disappear from the shelves, most smaller manufacturers and retailers will be forced to close. Britain's five million users of the products will find their choice dramatically reduced.

The battle to question the legality of these new rules through a series of High Court actions has already cost the 350 members of the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), including Harrods, huge sums in legal fees. Now, with further actions in the pipeline, including a reference to the European Court of Justice, the NAHS has set up a company, Save Our Supplements, which last week launched 36 top-quality health products, manufactured by First Nutrition. These are to be sold in health stores nationwide, with 10 per cent of the retail price going to the NAHS fighting fund.

The new company, run by Ralph Pike, an ex-policeman and health store owner, estimates that its first year's turnover will be 3 million. The products are endorsed by eminent scientists including Professor Arnold Beckett, a former president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and supported by well-known users of health products including the actress Jenny Seagrove.

Last October Miss Seagrove and the NAHS failed to persuade the High Court to reverse a ban by the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health on kava kava, a traditional herbal relaxant used by millions all over the world. Although the FSA claimed that kava kava had been "linked to" 81 cases of liver toxicity worldwide, this was regarded as highly questionable by medical experts. The DoH has refused to reveal to the court the evidence on which the health minister, Yvette Cooper, had based her decision to impose the ban.

An appeal against the court's ruling is likely, since the department relied on the so-called "Carltona principle" (named after a 1943 legal case between Carltona Ltd and the Department of Works) which allows a minister to delegate her functions to officials. It was deemed that Ms Cooper had personally taken the decision to ban kava kava, even though she might never have been involved except as a "rubber stamp" - which may explain the reluctance to produce any evidence on which she had supposedly made "her" decision.

On August 1, 2005, 5,000 health products will vanish from Britain's shops under the EC's Food Supplements directive. This month the Herbal Medicines Products directive was published by the European Commission, making it illegal to market any new herbal remedies (it is now not even possible to license them, since the licensing apparatus is not yet in place). At last week's annual health food exhibition in Brighton, Save Our Supplements launched its 36 new products to pay for the fight to continue, knowing that within 18 months it will be a criminal offence for any of them to be sold.

31 January 2004: Vitamins battle to go to Europe

Bureaucrats may safely graze

How country life is changing. For years the citizens of Sturminster Newton in Dorset have joined together in an annual "spring clean", with scores of volunteers fanning out through the streets to pick up every scrap of litter. Now North Dorset council has told them they must pay 150 for public liability insurance in case anyone cuts a finger while picking up bottles. This year's clean-up has been abandoned.

Meanwhile John Mills, regional policy director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently startled the National Farmers Union annual conference by boasting that Britain's countryside is now home to eight times as many civil servants as farmers. Only 3 per cent of rural inhabitants are farmers or fishermen, he claimed, whereas 25 per cent are on the public payroll, working in "rural administration".

Mr Mills did not point out that the first of these groups is rapidly diminishing (according to official figures by 140,000 in the past six years), while the other has been expanding - let alone that these facts might be connected.

A man who made a difference

In July 2000, this column broke the news that Steve Thoburn, a Sunderland greengrocer, had become the first trader in Britain to face criminal charges under the EC's metrication directives, for the offence of selling "a pound of bananas". When trading standards officials, with police support, seized Mr Thoburn's scales, he called on his fellow market-trader Neil Herron for support. Mr Herron promised: "One day, Steve, I will get those scales back for you."

Mr Herron organised the Metric Martyrs defence fund (to which Telegraph readers contributed more than 70,000), and their legal battle only ended last month, when the European Court of Human Rights refused to hear the plea of Mr Thoburn and four other "martyrs" that they had been robbed of their right to sell in weights their customers preferred. As I reported, Mr Thoburn said he would continue to sell in pounds and ounces, would refuse to pay any fines and was ready to go to prison in support of his principles.

Last weekend, at five in the morning, Steve Thoburn died of a heart attack, at the age of 39. His family and the defence fund (at PO Box 526, Sunderland SR1 3YS) have received thousands of messages from all over the world, including a 1,000 cheque from a firm of New York lawyers saying "keep up the fight".

Last Wednesday Mr Herron went to Sunderland council offices, and retrieved the scales seized from Mr Thoburn on July 4, 2000. Tomorrow large crowds are expected to line the streets for Mr Thoburn's funeral. He was a well-known and popular local figure. A memorial service will be held in due course, including a place for the world's most famous set of scales.

19 February 2004: Metric martyrs lose their fight

The torching of the orchards

Cider makers and apple growers predict that the skies over the West Country will blacken next autumn, as tens of thousands of apple trees go up in smoke. The reason is yet another extraordinary anomaly in the way that Margaret Beckett and her officials at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have chosen to apply the new "single farm payment" scheme.

Under a change to the EU's farm subsidy system, farmers will be paid not for what they produce but according to their acreage. Uniquely in the EU, however, Britain has chosen to exclude the growers of apples, pears, plums and cherries from payment. Growers of hops, soft fruit, asparagus, and willows used for fuel will, like other farmers, receive 230 a hectare per year. Orchard owners will get nothing - unless by January 1 they have uprooted all their trees, in which case they will receive the full 230, even if the ground is left unused.

This decision is particularly absurd in view of all the efforts in recent years to revive England's apple orchards, after years of decline when British fruit growers found it hard to compete with EU-subsidised Continental competitors. According to the European Commission, three-quarters of the apples grown in France were destroyed once hefty subsidies had been claimed.

The choice that Mrs Beckett presents to orchard owners is stark: destroy your trees by the end of the year, or you will never again be able to claim payments on the land - while you compete with foreign growers who are heavily subsidised. According to Julian Temperley of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, "half the traditional orchards in my part of Somerset will go". John Thatcher, who runs Britain's largest farmhouse cider business, predicts that next autumn the West Country will see "the biggest bonfires since foot and mouth, only they will smell better".