How EU ‘Novel Food’ rules can cause headaches on the family farm

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To see how the big hand of the European Union can cause havoc for the little guy, look to the tiny Latvian village of Obelisk, where Andris Visnevskis and Debora Paulino have been turning out craft hemp food products as licensed growers and producers since 2017. 

The couple, who own and manage Obelisk Farm — the very prototype of a successful micro agri-business based on hemp — are absorbing a body blow this year as local officials from Latvia’s Food and Veterinary Service (PVD) have ordered them to stop selling their line of hemp teas.

A third of income lost

“The teas were bringing one-third of our income,” said Visnevskis, whose company sells packaged hemp food at local events, through an online shop and directly from the farm, where Obelisk also hosts educational tours and workshops about industrial hemp. “It’s frustrating because we’ve been selling for two years with no problem.” That frustration is compounded as the stop-sell order came just as Obelisk gets ready to harvest its half-hectare field this year to turn out packaged seeds, seed oil, and bar snacks. 

Obelisk and other hemp food producers have been caught in an unfolding situation at the EU level, where the European Industrial Hemp Association (EIHA) is aggressively fighting to clarify and make fully legal food products derived from the hemp plant’s flowers and leaves. 

EIHA addressing problem

EIHA is pushing back at language in Union rules affecting green matter and green matter extracts — most importantly CBD — following an update earlier this year to the EU’s Novel Food Catalogue. The Catalogue is a listing of foods that were not commonly eaten in the member states before 1997. Essentially a food safety mechanism, the Catalogue is intended to control new, genetically or synthetically designed food products before market entry.

EIHA has developed extensive evidence that leaves, flowers and extracts have been in the European diet for centuries in efforts to exempt those parts and derivatives of the hemp plant from the Novel Foods Catalogue. In practice, if hemp producers have to qualify their products under Catalogue rules, it means significant added expense for things like research and safety testing.

Problems elsewhere in EU

In the meantime, hemp companies such as Obelisk are being hit hard. “These changes to the Novel Food catalogue were made in January, but nobody notified us until now,” Visnevskis said. “We would have planned our business differently if they had just let us know before we planted.”

The problem facing Obelisk is meanwhile being repeated around EU Member States, with similar flare-ups over food products made from hemp leaves and flowers reported in Poland, Italy and Sweden over the past three months. This is commonly the result of local officials responding to federal edicts that come down based on EU protocols under the Novel Foods Catalogue.

While Visnevskis said he is happy to see EIHA’s efforts in Brussels, he’s not sitting on his hands. He said he is working with his lawyers to push back on the situation at the local level too. And he remains determined: “Hemp is our life,” he said of the farm, which he and Paulino make home with their children, Fredis and Gabriela. “We know the challenges, and we know things can happen unexpectedly. We’ll work our way through this.”

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