The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently considering a rule that would require disclosure of carmine or cochineal on food labels - a proposal supported by the CSPI, which says that the measure is an advance over the status quo in which the dye can be described merely as 'color added' or 'artificial color.'
"But while the proposed disclosure rule would help consumers who know they're allergic to carmine avoid it, a ban would protect those who might not know," claimed the pressure group in a recent statement.
CSPI contends that the FDA's proposed rule does little to protect the number of people who experience allergic reactions to carmine and cochineal each year, and that the expense of emergency-room treatment of those reactions far outweighs the costs of relabeling or reformulating carmine-containing products.
Furthermore, CSPI urges that if the FDA doesn't ban the substance in food it should at least require labels to disclose that it is 'insect-based,' which would be useful to people who wish to adhere to kosher or vegetarian diets.
"Why tolerate a food coloring that sends a couple hundred people to emergency rooms each year, yet its only purpose is cosmetic?" said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
"Here's an idea for food companies: If you want to make your strawberry or cherry yogurt a brighter shade of red, why not just add more strawberries or cherries instead of resorting to insect juice?"
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.
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.
"Why not use a word that people can understand?" said CSPI director Michael Jacobson recently. "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."