Abstract The stringent food safety assessment for novel foods required by the European Union’s Novel Food Regulation (NFR) places a high burden of proof on those bringing traditional food products to the EU market not consumed in the EU prior 1997. The regulation has emerged as a non-tariff trade barrier for heritage foods from developing countries that are viewed as “exotic” from the EU perspective. We show how the regulation has discouraged investment in supply chains and market development, and how this negatively affects income generation and rural poverty alleviation in developing countries. Focusing on plant-derived foods, this paper proposes to recognize traditional exotic foods in current EU law as a food category sui generis with food safety evidence requirements being proportionate to the risks they may pose. We argue that development activities promoting export food chains must increasingly accommodate legitimate food safety concerns about neglected food species in project design and seek to generate data to enhance regulatory acceptance in target markets.