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Food additives have been in strict supervision

21 May 2009 1,696 views No Comment

FOOD ADDITIVES – preserving food by pickling with vinegar, salting bacon or adding sulfur dioxide to wine – have been used for centuries.

However, the steady rise in production and consumption of processed foods since the 1950s has greatly increased the use of additives, both natural and artificial. And legislation in Europe and the US has mushroomed as food scares and a growing body of research suggest that certain additives are dangerous, or even lethal, to consumers’ health.

Boric acid was a key precursor to food additive legislation – widely used as a food preservative from the 1870s, it was banned after the First World War because of its toxicity. However, the urgent need for cheap and available food additives during the Second World War gave it a final breath of life. Governments around the world decided to henceforth apply the precautionary principle and, in theory, allow only additives that were known to be safe to be used in foods.

The latest attempt to regulate the food industry in Europe was the adoption of the so-called food improvement agents package (FIAP) in 2008. The package consists of four new regulations providing a common authorization procedure for food additives, food enzymes and food flavorings, and individual regulations on enzymes, additives and flavorings. The regulations came into force in January 2009, with most of the measures applying from the start of 2010.

“Much of the FIAP package is welcomed as a necessary updating and consolidation of existing legislation on food additives and flavorings, and we welcome the harmonization of safety assessment procedures for food enzymes,” says a spokeswoman for the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF). This opinion is shared by Beate Kettlitz, director of food policy, science, and research and development for the the European confederation of the food and drink industries (CIAA).

“We support the European Commission’s intention to ensure coherence with the framework that has already been in place for more than 15 years,” she says. Kettlitz adds that “the CIAA was in general pleased that most of the issues we raised were taken into consideration in the adopted legislation, which ultimately should lead to a more competitive European food industry.”

Richard Ratcliffe, executive director of FAIA, the UK-based Food Additives and Ingredients Association, adds: “The additives industry believes that FIAP has been introduced in a reasonable way and is not too restrictive.” However, he notes that “the whole area of classification of foods upon which FIAP will be based (and which is still ongoing) may cause the industry more problems.”

HYPERACTIVITY LINK
The main concern voiced by all parties is the requirement to put a warning label on some food colorings. This decision was prompted by the findings in April 2008 by academics at Southampton University, UK, that suggested a link between hyperactivity in children and certain E-numbers – the name given to food additives that have passed safety tests and been approved for use in the EU. Scientists concluded that additives such as sunset yellow (E110) and tartrazine (E102) had a measurable effect on the activity and attention of some children.

The UK Food Standards Agency (which had initiated the research) advised its directors to call for the food industry to remove the six additives by the end of 2009, and some confectionery makers agreed to remove them. But, a subsequent evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that there was insufficient evidence for any public health measures to be taken.

Nonetheless, the Commission demanded that producers alert consumers to the inclusion of these ingredients in their foods. Or, as Kettlitz says: “Risk managers under pressure from the European Parliament and NGOs, decided to ignore EFSA’s science-based conclusions and adopted a decision mandating warning labels. This sets a dangerous precedent in policy making, which seriously undermines the value of scientific risk assessments as a policy tool.”

Maryse Hervé, secretary general of the ELC, the Federation of European Food Additives, Food Enzymes and Food Cultures Industries, is also concerned. “We welcome the introduction in the new legislation of several mechanisms that are expected to speed up and improve the procedure for authorizing new additives and extension of uses of permitted additives, thus favoring formulation of safe innovative foods and drinks,” she says. “But we deplore the inclusion in the food additives regulation of labeling requirements for certain food colors [and] believe that the EU institutions’ disregard of EFSA’s opinion on the Southampton study significantly harms the long-term standing of EU risk assessment and risk-management procedures.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says there is “no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children,” but the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also US, would like the country to follow in Europe’s footsteps, and has petitioned the FDA to ban artificial colorings that are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children.

It has also asked the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes, while a ban is considered. “The FDA’s labelling regulations for Yellow 5 and other food dyes merely require that their presence in a food be disclosed on the food’s ingredient list,” says Michael Jacobson, the CSPI’s executive director: “The FDA could amend those regulations to require – as an interim measure before the approvals are revoked – a warning, such as: ‘WARNING: The artificial colorings in this food cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children’.”

In the US, it is food safety, rather than the control of food additives, that has topped the legislation agenda recently, prompted by a series of food scares: for example, in 2007 the plastics additive melamine was found in wheat gluten and rice protein produced in China for pet foods, while more recently it was found in baby formula.

NEW LAWS LOOMING?
The scares led the FDA to introduce an import alert allowing customs inspectors to detain vegetable protein imports from China. And for the first time since the Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906 calls for a system overhaul led to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act proposed this year.

The scares have caused consumer confidence in food safety to fall to an all-time low and the food industry has welcomed proposals that could help to boost its profile, even if it means greater government involvement. Pam Bailey, CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), says: “Ensuring the safety of our products is priority number one for the food industry. Without consumer confidence, nothing else we do is possible.”

She says the GMA supports the requirement that all food companies should have a comprehensive food-safety plan in place.

The CIAA’s Kettlitz is skeptical that regulation can eliminate the risk of food scandals. “For me, the melamine case is a typical case of fraud, and no legislative framework could prohibit this,” she says.

But in general, all parties seem to agree that recent legislation has been helpful to boost the competitiveness of the EU and US food industries, rather than overly restrictive. According to Ratcliffe, food scandals only make life harder for the majority when “the tabloid journalists get excited.”

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