CBD at the crossroads: a response to the FSA guidelines

New trade association launched to lead CBD industry regulation
© iStock/GeorgePeters

Professor Mike Barnes, co-founder of Maple Tree Consultants, responds to the FSA’s guidelines regarding CBD products.

As the cannabis market has grown exponentially over the last year, there has been a massive influx of new companies offering a range of CBD infused products including oils, to vape pens, tincture, gummies, chocolates, and wellness products.

As a result of demand and product innovation, the CBD industry is reportedly set to be worth an impressive £1bn by 2025, surpassing sales of popular supplements such as vitamin C and D.

Until now, CBD has been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found that over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label.

FSA intervention

On 13 February 2020, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced a deadline of 31 March 2021 for the submission of a valid application for novel food authorisation for businesses selling food and food supplements containing CBD in the UK. Contained in the announcement, was a warning to all CBD companies that failure to comply may result in products being taken off the shelves. Alongside this warning, the FSA also issued its first ever safety advice to consumers of CBD products.

The UK guidelines, which do not apply to Scotland, come a little more than a year after the European Union added hemp extracts and hemp-derived products containing cannabinoids – including CBD – to a list known as the Novel Food Catalogue.

As the FSA only overlooks the food and beverage industry, the standards won’t be applicable to vapes, cosmetics, or other items “not for consumption” or those containing controlled drugs such as THC, or products making medicinal claims.

Opportunities and restrictions

The statement made by the FSA should be seen as an opportunity for those of us looking to work in a compliant industry and this increased regulatory scrutiny will likely see dodgy operators exiting the market, leading to a better product market place and increasing trust from the end user. The move towards better regulation standards is therefore a welcome one.

There is a great need for companies to be more stringent about the contents and overall safety of the cannabidiol products they produce. As steps are taken to protect consumers and ensure the products available are legitimate and safe, the CBD industry will have a space to safely and sustainably grow.

A vital component of moving the industry forward is for consumers to be properly informed about CBD; it’s different forms, strengths, recommended intake, proven benefits and potential side-effects. In this regard, the FSA’s guidelines are a step in the right direction. Yet there are elements to the advice which are simply too restrictive, risking suffocating the market and so come across as anti-business.

For example, the FSA has recommended healthy adults to ‘think carefully’ before taking CBD and to have a maximum daily intake of 70mg a day. This makes the UK the first country in the world to set recommended limits for CBD consumption. Yet the only evidence of adverse effects from CBD is from extremely high doses. There is no scientific rationale for the 70 mg limit.

Trade associations such as CannaPro and the CTA have done good work in ensuring the quality of the products and trading standards of their members and by recommending a cautious, research-backed maximum daily dose of 200mg for adults.

It is therefore a shame that the FSA hasn’t considered wider views of the industry, instead choosing to partner with a relatively new trade association that charges significant membership fees to ultimately benefit larger companies on its books. This ignores some of the great work smaller businesses have achieved in future proofing their business models and creating safe high-quality products.

FSA guidelines on CBD

The FSA needs to work with longstanding trade associations to improve the regulation of CBD products without damaging the market and to update its consumer guidelines based on the huge amount of anecdotal evidence and observational studies currently available.

Due to the huge costs involved in applying for Novel Food status, some companies are at risk. A large number of businesses will now need to enter proceedings to gain retrospective approval, a burdensome, expensive process which involves supplying a large amount of data from rigorous testing.

The FSA’s deadline will now force firms to scramble to gather this data in just over a year.

Whilst I am pleased to see the FSA taking interest in the cannabidiol industry, its interventions, in my opinion, have been heavy handed. An improved regulatory system is essential, but this must be implemented with market longevity in mind.

CBD products enable people to benefit from the therapeutic effects of medicinal cannabis legally and without a prescription – for some, the results are life changing. It’s important we do not disrupt access to these products which are providing multiple benefits for people’s health and wellbeing.

Prof. Mike Barnes
Guest Author
Maple Tree Consultants

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