This comment was amended to correct a statement about bans of additives in other countries. Some of the chemicals were previously banned by Norway, Austria and Australia but those bans have since been removed. Allura red AC, tartrazine and sunset yellow are allowed in the US, while quinoline yellow, carmoisine and ponceau 4R are not. None of the colour additives are currently banned by Australia, which lifted a ban on quinoline yellow in 2003. The country does not permit tartrazine to be used in medicines.
The food industry faces losing credibility over its reaction to the latest study throwing suspect light on chemical additives.
The rather anodyne initial reaction of food industry groups and the UK regulator to a major study on six of the main artificial colour additives and one preservative is rather puzzling given their stated commitment to promoting "nutrition, health and wellness".
The statements by industry in relation to the University of Southampton study can only serve to damage the credibility carefully built up over the years to promote themselves as movers in that direction.
Evidence of such a strategy was not in display either by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) or industry statements released in relation to the study published in Lancet last week.
The study found evidence that special cocktails of artificial additives could exacerbate the condition of hyperactive children. The colour additives were tartrazine, quinoline yellow, sunset yellow, carmoisine, ponceau 4R, allura red, and the preservative sodium benzoate.
In separate statements both the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) seemingly dismissed the research as inconclusive and even faulty.
The FDF emphasised the need to reassure consumers that the "study does not suggest there is a safety issue with the use of additives", that "the effect of individual colours on the behaviour of children surveyed could not be determined", and "the way in which the additives were tested as a mixture is not how they are used in everyday products".
People could avoid using these additives by "looking at the food label", the FDF advised customers.
The BDSA said the research linking sodium benzoate to hyperactivity was not yet
definitive enough to remove the preservative from products, stating the obvious: "All additives, including colours used in food and drink, have been approved by the FSA as being safe for use and are carefully selected and monitored."
This latter statement rather begs the question, since the FSA commissioned the study based on previous but inconclusive scientific evidence linking health problems to such additives.
The UK study is now part of a European Food Safety Authority general review of the artificial E-numbered additives, as they are classified, so one would have expected a more forceful reaction from the industry demonstrating that it is working to eliminate them.
First, remember the study's conclusions were based on a randomised, double-blind , placebo-controlled test on some 300 children - the so called "gold standard" of research.
The researchers also concluded modestly enough that they "found an adverse effect of food additives on the hyperactive behaviour of 3-year-old and 8 to 9-year-old children", one that added to the evidence building up on the use of such concoctions.
Perhaps the initial industry reaction was encouraged by the FSA's lame statement advising parents that eliminating certain artificial food colours from the diets of hyperactive children "might have some beneficial effects on their behaviour".
Again puzzling since the agency's scientific review panel stated: "We conclude that the results of this study are consistent with, and add weight to, previous published reports of behavioural changes occurring in children following consumption of particular food additives."
The head of the FSA, chairperson Deirdre Hutton, has since admitted in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper that the regulator had perhaps "missed a trick" by focusing too heavily on the science when communicating the results to the public.
"It may have made us look as though we ourselves were not being sufficiently active. And that's a mistake," she is quoted as stating. "We are."
That action became evident Friday, when the FSA said it was convening processors and retailers to make more transparent what they were doing to eliminate artificial colours, which are superfluous to foods, and sodium benzoate, the removal of which would have greater implications.
For the food industry to excuse itself by stating it is searching for alternatives "where possible" is also not enough. Since some of the artificial colour additives in the study are already banned in some countries such as Japan and the US, processors must have found replacements for those.
Or they can decide to go without a specific colour, as Nestle did in deciding to use only natural colours in its Smarties. The company could not find a replacement for blue, and simply eliminated the colour from the mix.
The fact is, whatever the scientific debate over how strong a conclusion one can draw from the study, the public is already predisposed by motherly advice to be "E shy" so to speak.
As an industry observer, we therefore call on companies to act smarter and move as quickly as possible to eliminate at least artificial colour additives and work on the sodium benzoate.
Executives must state clearly some deadlines for elimination and be more transparent. That is the message the public seems to want to hear in the face of warning messages about artificial additives.
With the public already turning against processed foods in general, and additives in particular, industry needs to take a more forceful line to show that manufacturers are taking action on eliminating the suspect and promoting the good.
Only then can industry build on the trust it has already established by focusing more on health and wellness.
Ahmed ElAmin is editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. He is a business journalist who specialises in development issues, food, wine, technology, international business and offshore finance. To comment on this article please e-mail email@example.com
From: Julian Hunt, Director of Communications, Food and Drink Federation
I was disappointed to see that your editorial on the FSA-sponsored study into food colourings followed the lead taken by the more sensational elements of the British media, rather than focusing on the facts ('Hooked on Es' - 10 September). So I hope you don't mind if I try to redress the balance.
For starters, I should remind your readers that the biggest trend in the UK market in recent years has been for manufacturers and retailers to reduce the use of additives in their products, as well as replacing additives used with non-artificial alternatives.
Our industry prospers solely on its ability to meet consumer demands for products that look good, taste great and are safe. That's the one immutable law of the grocery sector. And our ongoing work to address consumer concerns about additives shows not only that we are a responsive industry, but we are responsible too.
In your editorial, you claim that the colourings under scrutiny can be easily substituted in all food and drink products. This is just not the case - as your readers will know, some manufacturers are overcoming all sorts of technical hurdles in their efforts to change product formulations.
So the achievements to date by our members and their retail customers should be celebrated - not dismissed out of hand.
Turning to the events of last week, it was absolutely right for us to point out that the findings from the study needed to be treated carefully. But this should not be interpreted as industry being dismissive or defensive.
The FSA's independent Committee on Toxicity itself said the results did not prove the colours caused increased hyperactivity, rather they provided supporting evidence for a link.
In addition, COT said the available evidence did not identify whether this association was restricted to certain food additives or combinations of them. Contrary to your analysis, the FSA was also unequivocal that any observed increases in hyperactive behaviour were more likely to be linked to one or more of the colours tested, not the preservative sodium benzoate.
Nevertheless, industry is not complacent; companies will, of course, be busily digesting the research, and the FSA's subsequent advice, all of which will feed into their ongoing reviews of product formulations.
Rather worryingly, you claim these colours are banned in some parts of Europe. This is not the case. The FSA confirms that all EU member states permit the use of these colours and so do countries in the European Economic Area, including Norway.
Judgement about the safety of these colours is something that must be addressed at a European level. That's why we welcome the fact that the FSA is referring the research to the European Food Safety Authority as part of its ongoing review of all food additives. Until it makes a decision, however, they remain absolutely legal colours for companies to use in products if they so choose.
In the meantime, you can rest assured that our members will continue to do what they do best: meeting the demands of consumers. And that does not mean pandering to the demands of tabloid headline writers.
From John Russell, Food Legislation Consultant
I read with interest your comments about industry reaction to the Southampton study (Hooked on Es).
You were highly critical and you give the impression that industry is in denial about a report whose findings are clear and unequivocal. However, if we read carefully between the lines, the conclusions are full of qualifications.
For example, the conclusions state that the cocktail mixes "are associated" with an increase in hyperactivity - and that "if casual", the observation "may " be significant "for some individual children across the range of hyperactive behaviours" (my underline).
It also notes that :
- "the increases in mean levels of hyperactivity observed in this study were small relative to normal inter-individual variation"
- "changes in behaviour were not evident in all children in any one group and were not consistent across age groups or across the different mixtures used in the study"
- "it is not possible to draw conclusions on the implications of the observed changes at the population level".
- "the research has not indicated any possible biological mechanism for the observations made, which might have provided evidence of casuality".
If we read the COT's findings, it's not difficult to see why their conclusions are full of so many qualifications. That is definitely NOT to dismiss the report - it is very important - but, rather, to try to put it into some kind of perspective.