This article has been updated in May 2008 following the vote in the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee of the food additives proposal.

In May 2008, the ENVI Committee in the European Parliament, voted in the second reading of the food additives proposal a requirement for an azo dye warning label following the publication of the Southampton Study. The Southampton Study linked six artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate to hyperactivity in children (EU Food Law, May 2008).
The plenary session of the Parliament will vote in July 2008.

In September 2007 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked to provide scientific advice to the European Commission and EU Member States in relation to a study undertaken by the University of Southampton showing the effect of two mixtures of food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate on children’s behaviour.

To assess the study, EFSA established an ad-hoc working group of the AFC Panel [[EFSA Panel on additives, flavourings, processing aids and materials in contact with food (AFC)]] involving statisticians and experts in the field of child behaviour.

EFSA concluded that the Southampton study provided limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had an effect on the activity and attention of some children. The AFC Panel committed in the evaluation of the study concluded that the findings could not be used as a basis for altering the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) [[ADI is a measure of the amount of a substance, such as a food additive, which can be consumed over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. ADIs are expressed by milligrams (of the substance) per kilograms of body weight per day.]] of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.

The Panel stressed the inability of the Southampton study to indicate which additives may have been responsible for the effects observed in the children given that mixtures and not individual additives were tested. It was also added that that the limitations of data prevent to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population.

The AFC Panel is currently re-evaluating the safety of all food colours authorised in the EU on a case-by-case basis including the colours used in the Southampton study. Opinions on some colours concerned such as Allura Red are expected to be adopted by the end of the year.

Background

The final technical report for additives and behaviour study shows that adverse effects are reported in children in the general population.

While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is analysing the conclusions of the report, a scientist of this panel, Dr. Sue Barlow, is being accused of having a conflict of interests by food policy experts and Members of the Parliament.

The suitability of Dr. Barlow, from EFSA, is being denounced as she is chairman of the European scientific panel assessing the risk of additives at meantime she is a paid consultant of Tesco and Unilever companies (suspected heavy users of these additives).

The research on foods colours, carried out by the Southampton University and published on The Lancet website, suggests that eating or drinking certain mixes of artificial food colours with the preservative called sodium benzoate, which is easily founded in popular foods for children such as soft drinks, confectionery and ice cream, could be linked to a negative effect on children’s behaviour.

The revised FSA advice on artificial food colours follows the evaluation of the research made by the independent Committee on Toxicity (COT). This committee considers that the mentioned study has provided supporting evidence of the link between the increase of hyperactivity and the mix of certain artificial food colours.

FSA’s research data

The study included two age groups of children, one of three year olds and the other of eight and nine year olds. Also, two mixes of artificial colours were used in the study:

Mix A consisted of: Sunset Yellow (E110), Tartrazine (E102), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124, Sodium Benzoate (E211).

Mix B consisted of: Sunset Yellow (E110), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Carmoisine (E122), Allura Red (E129), Sodium Benzoate (E211).

FSA recognizes that these additives must be listed on the products label by law so, parents can make the choice to avoid the product. However, Professor Jim Stevenson from Southampton University and author of the report, said: “Parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders. We know that many other influences are at work, but this at least is one a child can avoid.”

FSA’s call to industry

On 13 September 2007 FSA met with food industry bodies to establish what action is being taken following the publication of the study for additives and behaviour. According to FSA, the industry bodies present stated that since 2003, there has been a widespread trend to move away from the use of artificial colours in food and drink products – especially those aimed at children.

In addition, industry representatives quoted data from a market analyst, Mintel, showing that 24% of all new food and drink products launched onto the market contain no artificial additives and also claimed that many supermarket own brand products aimed at children are free from artificial colours.

The FSA has shared these research findings with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is currently conducting a review of the safety of all European Union permitted food colours.
EFSA expects to have completed the work on colours by the end of 2008.

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For further information:

Final technical report for additives and behaviour study

Food Standards Agency’s article about advice on artificial colours

FSA information about the Committee on Toxicity (COT)

COT statement investigating the mixtures of certain food colours and a preservative on behaviour in children

FSA research project article: T07040: Chronic and acute effects of artificial colourings and preservatives on children’s behaviour

European Food Safety Authority

University of Southampton

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