The European Food Safety Authority's review of additive safety could have a bigger effect on the ingredients industry than the ejection of certain colours and flavours with a suspect safety record. It could give the natural ingredients trend an extra push, and possibly prove the death-knell for the ne'er loved E number system.
The European Commission is to redraw legislation on additives, weaving together eight different regulations conceived over the last decades into one shiny new one. But the process is only in its early stages and it will likely be years before any new regulation comes into play. In the meantime, the EC has recognized that the current state of science means it cannot sit on its laurels and wait for it. Some of the additives being used in food today have, since they were first given the green light, been the subject of safety studies that have caused consternation. So EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) has been given the task of wading through the data on all 45 or so additives currently allowed in foods in Europe, starting with the oldest, to see if they have the impeccable safety record one would expect. So far it has delivered a verdict on just one, the colour Red 2G (E128) that is used in sausages and burgers in some member states. And it's not good news. Studies published since 1999 have led the safety authority to deem it a potential carcinogen, and withdrawn the ADI (accepted daily intake) established in 1981. An EC standing committee meeting took place on Friday to discuss its legality at a European level, with the decision taken that it should be banned. In essence, the re-evaluation is a good thing. But if studies raised questions in 1999, why has it taken almost eight years for any regulator to look at this? Additives have a bad rap with consumers anyway. The system has baffled many consumers since it was first introduced. After all, who really knows their E128 from their E110 (sunset yellow) when glancing quickly at a label? It's no real wonder that consumers are suspicious when legislators have been slow to act on the evidence. A rolling science assessment should have been in place years ago. The fact that it wasn't, and some long-held fears now proving to have legs, only adds to the legitimacy of such suspicions. We will have to wait until EFSA's review is over and done with in late 2008 before we know the true fall out from the outmoded system. But even so, a question mark over a previously available food ingredient undermines trust in the checks and balances of our regulatory system. What does this diminishment of trust mean for the innocent E-number, one just minding its own business, not causing anyone any harm? If EFSA is the doorman guarding entry to the glamorous party of food ingredients, its role is to keep out those malicious ingredients concealing weapons beneath their cloaks. But in the current climate, what of the innocents that are let in only to find themselves ostracized by the other guests because they come from the wrong side of the tracks that separate natural from synthetic? No-one can really blame them from slinking off from the party early - nor ingredients companies removing from sale ingredients that carry a stigma so that no-one wants in their food. Or else, in order to be accepted, the ingredient formerly known as E will need to be re-branded. Given a make-over, if you will, to carry favour with the in-crowd. The whole system of E numbers, for those additives that survive EFSA's science cull, may need to be redrawn. Or, if not, the industry will have to power up a huge PR machine to assure consumers one and all that not all additives are evil - and synthetic is not always a synonym for sinister. Consumers are already seeking out goods made with all natural ingredients, retailers are promising to cater to them and are ordering clean-label products from their manufacturers. For instance, UK supermarket ASDA has said it is removing all artificial colours and flavourings from its own-label foods and beverages. The ingredients industry is stepping up to the mark with natural ingredients offerings. This is a fertile market sector, and the tale of Red 2G is like a liberal spreading of dung across the top of it - foul-smelling, but encouraging more growth. The anti-additives movement is already active at market level. It makes little sense for the industry to wait on legislation. It needs to start second-guessing the ramifications now if it wants its ingredients to be invited to the party again.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com