The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may soon require food companies to label the presence of insect-derived red color additives cochineal extract or carmine, on the basis that these may lead to severe allergic reactions.
Derived from the ground bodies of female cochineal beetles, the colorings are currently used in a variety of ice creams, yogurts, fruit drinks, alcoholic drinks and candy products, to which they bring a characteristic pink, red or purple color.
Currently the FDA only requires that the ingredient is labeled as a 'color added' or 'artificial color', but fears over allergic reactions as well as consumer demands to be better informed if the products they buy are animal-derived are prompting the move towards change.
Carmine extract has been used for thousands of years to provide coloring in a host of products, including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. But, according to the consumer pressure group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), current labeling legislation means very few people can readily identify the ingredient.
As well as carmine, cochineal beetles are also used to produce cochineal extract, another red dye derivative that is used in food products.
The cochineal beetle is farmed in Peru and the Canary Islands. The beetle bodies are first dried out before being crushed to obtain the coloring extract.
The FDA says that its main concern over the ingredient is for health and safety reasons. Allergy sufferers unwittingly consuming products containing the coloring have been known to come out in rashes, hives and even succumb to anaphylaxis attacks.
The CSPI has been lobbying the FDA to improve the labeling of products containing cochineal extract since 1998, and has been one of the driving forces behind the FDA's latest action.
The CSPI says that, together with issues concerning the health risks associated with the extracts, it is also concerned that individuals who may have moral objections to purchasing insect-derived products also need to be better informed.
More specifically the concern is that vegans, vegetarians, or individuals seeking animal-free products because of religious reasons should have access to clearer information about the ingredient on the product labeling to enable a more informed choice.
In an effort to meet these requirements, the FDA has published an online proposal that would require manufacturers to clearly label any products containing either extract. The public and interested parties have been given until May 1 to reply to the FDA over the proposed ruling.
But the CSPI wants the FDA to go one step beyond simply referring to the colorings by their real names and actually specify the coloring's origins.
"Why not use a word that people can understand?" said CSPI director Michael Jacobson. "Sending people scurrying to the dictionary or to Google to figure out what 'carmine' or 'cochineal' means is just plain sneaky. Call these coloring what they are - insect-based."