"A big theme of the technology sectors that I have led on is creating new markets, new opportunities, new products and regulation's got to keep up," former life sciences minister Freeman said of the report from the Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR). "The two best examples of that are digital health [wearables, Apple devices and fitbits, for example] and nutraceuticals."
Food firms have long argued the process for EU Novel Foods approval is unnecessarily arduous and lengthy and holds back innovation. With Brexit behind us, the UK has an opportunity to literally rewrite the rulebook. Commenting on nutraceuticals regulation, Freeman said the UK needed integrated legislation that recognised nuanced distinctions and areas of overlap as well as the capabilities of digital technology to collate evidence of efficacy. "My argument is we have said a carrot is food, broccoli is food, beneforte broccoli we don't recognise; it's not a medicine, it's not a food - that's a drug."
Probiotics is another classic example of where his argument applied, he said. "Medics will say there's no evidence for probiotics. I'd say, 'no, because we haven't collected it'.
'We can start to validate some claims'
"But if you're going to agree that we should be collecting digital patient observed outcomes, if we're going to create a framework for that, surely we should create a framework for people who are taking Benecol or beneforte broccoli. Get on the app, it will measure your heart rate. You can say, 'I'm less stressed, I'm sleeping better, my heart rate's down'. It will do a lot of that for you, and then we can start to validate some claims."
Freeman, who is Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk said he wanted to incorporate the potential for nutraceuticals and digital health into the development of the UK's National Food Strategy. The report also calls for a system that recognises the relationship between nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals.
Proposals include the creation of a cross-organisational innovation office to co-ordinate the functions of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
"If we're really going to deliver net zero and healthier, and cleaner, growth and be global Britain and support leadership in the global grand challenges, I would argue our agri-tech, our food science, our nutritional science, our clean-tech science is as powerful as our aircraft carrier," said Freeman.
'Massive opportunity for science and agri-tech leadership'
He said the challenge of feeding a global population of nine billion people by 2050 was 'a massive opportunity for our science and agri-tech leadership'.
Commenting at the time the report was launched, Freeman said: “The UK has a hugely dynamic nutraceutical sector. However, it is currently operating in a patchy regulatory framework that does not reflect the extraordinary advances taking place in technology and nutrition science.
"We now have the opportunity to create a smarter, simpler system with a clearer pathway to market for innovative science-backed products. As well as protecting consumers, such reforms would provide greater certainty for businesses and investors and help make the UK a global leader.”
Standard definition of nutraceuticals
The report also calls for the UK to lead the way on a standard definition of nutraceuticals. “Despite the widespread use of the term ‘nutraceutical’, it’s not referred to anywhere in current UK or EU regulations,” Freeman added. “This is a global issue, and there is an opportunity for the UK to take the lead.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has welcomed the report, stating that it illustrated 'the sheer level of ambitious thinking needed to usher in a new golden age of growth and innovation right across the UK'. Downing Street has undertaken to host a series of round table events to discuss the paper's proposals.
The report also proposes that the UK Government should support research into and commercial adoption by UK farmers and growers of gene edited crops, particularly those which help the transition away from agrochemicals to naturally occurring biological resilience.
It also calls for the development of a comprehensive system of environmental metrics for sustainable agriculture, incorporating the environmental impacts of a production system from field to fork, to support clearer food labelling.