The view on fortified food

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – For the last seven years Marianne Orum has owned a narrow store in a charming street in the heart of this Danish capital.

A sign advertises “British and South African Food and Drink.”

The shelves are lined with products like Betty Crocker Pancake Mix, Heinz Taste of Home Delightful Spotted Dick Pudding in cans, and bottles of Harviestoun Old Engine Oil porter.

But in January Orum got a phone call from government food inspectors. Tipped off by a competitor, they told her she was selling products that were fortified with vitamins or minerals, and such products require government approval, which she did not have, so she would have to take them off the shelves.

The culprits were Ovaltine; a shredded wheat cereal called Shreddies; a malt drink called Horlicks; and Marmite, the curiously popular yeast byproduct that functions in England as a sandwich spread, snack or base for a soup (just add boiling water), and is sometimes known as tar-in-the-jar.

“That’s four products in one go,” said Orum, clearly angered. “That’s a lot for a small company.”

Application for approval, she said, costs almost $1,700 per product, and time for approval can run up to six months or more; the fee is not refunded if the product is rejected.

“It’s a strange thing, this attitude in Denmark,” she said, in a tone of exasperation. “The government wants to decide what we eat and not.”

Her partner, Roddy Gray, 55, a Scotsman who has lived in Denmark for 27 years, says something is clearly rotten. “We don’t have a day without people asking for Marmite,” he said. “And this is the EU?” he went on, referring to the European Union. “All for one and one for all?”

The inclusion of Horlicks particularly incensed him. “My mum and dad had one every night,” he said.

All governments regulate food and drink sales, and certainly the problem lacks the urgency of the E. coli infections in Germany and Scandinavia, including Denmark, which has claimed lives and affected hundreds of people. What is odd in Denmark is that the government, perhaps alone anywhere, is suspicious of foods that are fortified with vitamins or minerals.

Manufacturers must apply for approval, which is granted if the vitamin or mineral enrichment is within levels set by the law. Essentially, the Danes believe that if you’re eating a balanced diet, enriching food with vitamin or mineral additives can be downright harmful.

“It’s quite well documented that most vitamins are toxic, depending on the amount taken in,” said Jens Therkel Jensen, deputy head of the division for nutrition at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, the local equivalent of the FDA. Certain age groups, he said, like very young children and the elderly, are particularly at risk.

Almost half the applications since 2009, he said, have been for energy drinks, like Red Bull, which was admitted last year after several years, and Glaceau, which is made by Coke and hit the market in June. When the law on additives took effect in 2004, Kellogg, the American cereal maker, applied for 18 products, including breakfast cereals and cereal bars, some popular for generations in the U.S. All 18 were refused because they were enriched with excessive levels (by Danish standards) of iron, calcium, vitamin B or other supplements.

Kellogg abided by the law, and now sells a few products locally, like All-Bran and Special K Red Berries, which it manufactures so that supplements are within the permitted Danish levels.

The Danish food industry, which ships hams and baby ribs, among other products, to the U.S., would like to see the ban rescinded.

“You won’t see a lack of vitamins in the Danes, and the opinion of researchers is that they do not need further fortification,” said Astrid Bork Andersen, senior adviser to the Danish Food and Drink Federation, which represents about 250 food companies. “However, we think it should be the choice of the consumer.”

Particularly for smaller food producers and retailers, she said, “It’s a burden, moneywise and time-wise.”

Her organization is banking on the harmonization of laws concerning vitamin and mineral supplements, which were agreed upon by the European Union in 2006. The new rules are now expected to take effect in mid-2012, when upper limits for supplements are defined.

“Habits are changing.” Andersen said. Only recently has Denmark begun fortifying milk with Vitamin D, a practice that has existed in the U.S. for decades. “There is more relaxation,” she said.

Louise Hasback, a regular customer in Orum’s shop, a native of Denmark with a taste for British food, was disappointed to find the shop out of pork pies, a favourite of hers. She bought several bags of English potato chips.

As for fortified food, “I try to avoid it,” she said, though she said she gave vitamin pills to her daughter and believed she should start taking supplements herself.

“You get to an age when you have to look after yourself, you know, calcium,” said Hasback, who said she is in her 60s. But she was no fan of Marmite, enriched or not. “The first time I ate it, I could not believe it,” she said.