Goji berries, also known as Chinese wolfberries, come from the Lycium barbarum plant, a vine that grows in China, Tibet and other areas of Asia.
Understood to be loaded with anti-oxidants and vitamin C, they have shot to popularity in the last couple of years as part of the 'superfruit' trend, which has also seen food and beverage manufacturers catering to consumer demand for pomegranate, cranberries, noni, blackberries, and other exotic produce.
Under the 1997 novel foods regulation, a food is judged to be 'novel' if it was not eaten in substantial quantities in the EU before May 1997.
The agency says it has written to retailers, health food companies and other stakeholders on the matter since it has received a number of enquiries from companies in the EU about whether the sale of goji berries is legal under the regulation.
A spokesperson for the FSA told NutraIngredients.com confirmed that products containing goji berries are already being sold on the UK market.
The FSA has set a deadline of March 23 for pre-1997 evidence to be presented. If none is forthcoming, it will inform food businesses and enforcement bodies that goji berry sale is not legal until novel foods authorisation has been granted.
The spokesperson could not say at this stage whether, if goji berries are deemed illegal, foods containing them would have to be withdrawn from sale while authorisation is sought.
"That would be something we would have to consider far further down the line", she said.
She stressed that there are no immediate safety concerns over goji berries. "This will be taken into account when deciding on appropriate enforcement action," said the FSA statement.
Foods deemed novel must be formally authorised after meeting three criteria: they must be not unsafe; their label must not be misleading; and their nutritional quality must not be inferior to other, similar foods that they may replace.
For now, however, the legal status of goji berries in the EU is not looking very secure. The FSA says it has checked with other member states, and no significant history of consumption before 1997 has come to light so far.