More than 350 cases of online offers and advertising of food claiming to prevent or cure coronavirus have been found by European countries in the past few months.

The 352 cases were reported after the European Commission proposed an action plan on internet offers and advertising of food related to COVID-19. Almost 50 of these have been judged to be cross-border cases. The operation started in late April and involves 25 member states.

Penalties include an administrative fine, injunction, the health claim being withdrawn or changed and the offer removed. Most cases concern food supplements sold via online platforms with offers usually withdrawn quickly following an agreement with e-commerce platforms.

The European Commission asked member states to reinforce vigilance and adapt controls to online offers and advertising of food related to COVID-19. A discussion is set for early July to see whether to continue with the action plan. It involves tracing and identifying websites, sellers and operators with illegal practices, following-up on non-compliances and suspicions of fraud, and informing consumers of potential risk.

Pandemic used as business opportunity
Criminals and fraudsters are using the pandemic as a business opportunity. Products claiming to prevent and cure COVID-19 are being marketed illegally and may pose significant risks to health, according to the Commission.

Current scientific evidence does not support any claim that a food or food supplement protects against COVID-19 infection. There are also no authorized health claims for these products as protecting against viral infection or boosting immunity against any virus.

Health claims on foods are authorized by the European Commission, following scientific assessment from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The Commission has authorized claims that refer to the role of certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D and iron, in contributing to normal functioning of the immune system.

The issue was identified by national authorities who saw products sold via the internet advertised as having a positive effect on the immune system or as protecting against infection by coronavirus.

Observed sales of items claiming to prevent and cure COVID-19 led to authorities in some countries alerting marketplaces about products and advertisements on their platforms regarding dubious and illicit practices.

Some form of action has been taken in 74 cases involving web shops and advertising websites while 235 are part of ongoing investigations. In cooperation with e-commerce platforms, measures have been taken in 27 cases while 65 are under investigation.

A fine was issued in 13 cases involving web shops and advertising websites, an injunction on 12 occasions, the health claim has been removed or changed 21 times and the offer has been removed 36 times.

Interim rules extended
Meanwhile, temporary rules to tackle disruption in official control systems in Europe because of the coronavirus pandemic have been extended.

A total of 19 nations are applying the measures in Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/714 that amended Implementing Regulation 2020/466. It allows official controls and other activities on official certificates and attestations to be by an electronic copy, subject to conditions.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Ireland, Cyprus, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden have taken up the option.

The EU legislation on human, animal and plant health and animal welfare gives nations more flexibility on official controls in the supply chain.

Some member states told the Commission and other countries that the serious disruptions in functioning of control systems due to the COVID-19 crisis and the difficulties to perform official controls and other official activities will last beyond June 1, 2020. The date when the temporary flexibility was originally due to expire.

To address these disruptions and help the planning and performance of official controls and other activities during the pandemic, the rules have been extended until August 1, 2020, with the need for a further extension to be looked at in July.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)