The gatekeepers of gastronomy giving the go-ahead to cockerel yoghurt
Busying themselves with essence of coxcomb and cockroach innards, Novel Foods Units across Europe have the task of deciding which bizarre ingredients are fit for human consumption
They say that the comb on the top of the head of a cockerel has a chewy, rubbery texture. «It also smells bad,» says Josep Escaich, boss of Spanish pharmaceutical firm Bioibérica. It’s not, then, the first thing you’d think of adding to yoghurt. However, his company – best known for making the anticoagulant heparin – is in talks with leading yoghurt manufacturers to do just that.
It turns out that coxcombs are rich in an acid called sodium hyaluronate which, it is claimed, can help alleviate osteoarthritis. Under the product’s more user-friendly trade name, Mobilee, Bioibérica envisages people at risk from the condition consuming concentrated sodium hyaluronate on a daily basis – not just in yoghurt but in other food staples, too.
However, it’s not quite as simple as coming up with a catchy marketing slogan and putting it on the shelves. Although coxcombs have been eaten in parts of southern Europe for centuries (in the Piedmont region of Italy they make a stew called finanziera with them, adding the bird’s testicles for good measure), Mobilee is what’s known in the jargon of EU food safety legislation as a «novel food». This means, according to the official definition, that it hasn’t been used for human consumption «to a significant degree» in the EU before 1997, and therefore can’t be brought to market without government approval. But who gives this approval? And how do they decide whether we should be exposed to a «novel food» at all?
In the UK, the assessment is made by a department of the Food Standards Authority called the Novel Foods Unit, in central London. All EU states have similar organisations but Bioibérica decided to apply in the UK rather than Spain. «Foreign companies often come to us, either because of the English language, or because we’re extremely helpful,» says Novel Foods Unit adviser Manisha Upadhyay. «We’ll show them how to put the dossier together. There’s a charge of £4,000, but they get a lot for their money.»
This means, essentially, that Upadhyay and her colleagues tell the applicant what they need to prove for their product to be accepted. They then go away and spend millions of pounds on scientific trials before the unit’s specialist committee of independent advisers assesses the findings and gives a view on whether that particular novelty is indeed fit for human consumption. They approved Mobilee in 2011, three years after the original application, but their decision then had to be voted on by the rest of the EU’s member states, who said yes in December last year. «The novel food process is excessively long,» says Escaich. «It’s a process that you shouldn’t go through if you’re not perseverant! But it does mean that any novel food product that goes out into the market has been studied properly.»
Attempts to create a unified EU Novel Food Unit collapsed last year over the issue of cloned animals. Everybody agrees that clones are «novel» but are their offspring? Sandy Lawrie, the head of the UK’s Novel Food Unit, argues that the daughter of a cloned cow is just a cow. «If cloned meat does what it’s designed to do, it creates a product that is identical to the one that was there before,» he says. «Once you start breeding from those animals there’s no difference from that meat and meat that is produced in any other way.» However, the European parliament disagreed with the recommendation of the Council of Member States and discussions have stalled.
Recent interest in eating insects has caused problems, too. The majority of insects haven’t been «widely consumed» in the EU so it should be illegal to sell fried cockroach, mealworm and the like. However, while it turns out that selling cockroach innards would be against the law, a whole cockroach is absolutely fine. «There is a glitch in the legislation in that it talks about foods that are «obtained from animals», not foods that consist of animals,» admits Lawrie. «The legislation doesn’t currently apply to whole insects. A whole mealworm, for example, would fall outside the wording of the legislation.»
Meanwhile all kinds of potential poisons lurk in our kitchens, purely because we’ve been eating them for centuries. Would nuts have passed the unit’s scrutiny considering the millions of people who suffer an allergy? «Potatoes are a better example,» says Lawrie. «We know that potatoes produce a toxin, solanine, unless they’re grown and stored in a particular way. We’re used to doing that but, if they’d never been eaten before, and you came forward with them tomorrow, there might be a problem.»
However, few people are aware of how many products Europe’s Novel Foods Units have kept off our shelves. Among other delicacies, honey laced with bee venom was rejected (on the grounds that it could trigger allergies), as waspowdered deer antler – said to help athletes recover more quickly from injury. Delectable cockerel yoghurt, however, should be on sale sometime later this year.
Published at the Guardian journal online on the 15th of April 2014