The number of online advertisements found featuring food claiming to prevent or cure coronavirus in Europe has passed 600. The European Commission called on member states to reinforce their vigilance and adapt control activities on online offers and advertising of food related to COVID-19.

More than 530 are national cases and 85 are cross-border issues. In June, the number stood at more than 350. Italy has been involved in more than 200 reports, with Germany’s 61 the next highest followed by Netherlands, France and Czech Republic.

Dietetic foods, supplements and fortified foods is the main product category with 580 alerts while only a handful relate to cocoa, coffee and tea; herbs and spices; honey and royal jelly; or fats and oils.

Using pandemic as business opportunity
The European Commission launched an action plan on internet offers and advertising of food allegedly related to COVID-19 in April 2020 and it will continue until spring 2021.

Action has been taken in almost 300 cases in partnership with e-commerce platforms on nearly 80 occasions. Measures have mostly involved the offers being removed or changed, but some have led to a fine or injunction. More than 300 investigations are ongoing.

Member states found that more products sold via the internet were being advertised as having a positive effect on the immune system or protecting against infection. Evidence so far does not support claims that any food or food supplement protects against COVID-19.

Criminals and fraudsters are using the pandemic as a business opportunity, according to the Commission.

“Products claiming to prevent and cure COVID-19 are being marketed illegally and may even pose significant risks to health,” it said.

Denmark, Germany and Czech Republic action
Fødevarestyrelsen (the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration) has found 21 illegal advertisements with at least seven fines handed out to companies.

Speaking in June while he was still Denmark’s Agriculture Minister, Mogens Jensen, said there are online retailers who try to exploit people’s fears of coronavirus by selling products that promise more than they can deliver.

“At best, it affects people’s wallets. At worst, customers believe that they are better protected and can relax on the guidelines to keeping a distance and washing hands (and) they expose themselves and others to an even greater risk of infection,” he said

The Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) in Germany advised consumers to find out more about the ingredients if they are not familiar with them before buying food supplements on the internet.

The agency also told people not to buy dietary supplements from individuals and to pay attention to product images, labels and packaging.

The Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority (SZPI) dealt with more than 80 cases involving internet sellers of food supplements earlier this year. These vendors offered products using prohibited medical claims, mostly by indicating effects on coronavirus.

Since September, inspectors have noticed repeated attempts by some sellers to promote food supplements using unauthorized claims again. Some have involved companies in other EU countries so authorities have used the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System managed by the EU Commission to share information.

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