Responses to EFSA Southampton verdict

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Efsa E number European food safety authority

EFSA's evaluation of the Southampton study on food additives and
hyperactivity has drawn a mixed bag of responses, with the food
industry broadly supportive of its findings and anti-additive
campaigners firing strong criticism at the risk assessor.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked by the European Commission to scrutinize the so-called Southampton study that identified a link between cocktails of certain common food colourings and sodium benzoate and hyperactivity in children. It issued its conclusion on Friday: that the study gives no basis for changing acceptable daily intakes of additives, due to inconsistencies and the inability to attribute the effect to any additives in particular. The risk assessor will, however, continue its safety review of food colours permitted in the EU, which includes those used in the study: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124). Initial responses from the food industry have been favourable. The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) said it welcomes EFSA's conclusion that no changes are needed on the use of the additives. "All ingredients used by the soft drinks industry are approved as safe in use by the Food Standards Agency…. We look forward to working with the FSA and other industry bodies to ensure that the public can continue to choose from a wide range of products and enjoy them with confidence,"​ it said. Julien Hunt, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation, did not give an immediate reaction to the EFSA announcement, but said it will take time for the industry association to digest the details of opinion. He did say, however, that the UK food and drink manufacturing industry has been responding to consumer demand for fewer artificial additives in food and drink products for a number of years. The Food Commission, on the other hand, which launched an Action on Additives campaign following the original publication of the Southampton study in The Lancet​ last September, hit out at EFSA. Campaign coordinator Anna Glayzer said that both the European risk assessor and the UK Food Standards Agency, which funded the study in the first place, are "incapable of making a practical decision"​. "Six of the seven tested additives are artificial colourings which are totally unnecessary ingredients in the first place,"​ she said. "We do not need them in our food and we would urge the government to pursue a ban. In the meantime, all responsible manufacturers should take steps to remove them as soon as they can." ​ The FSA has previously pointed out, however, that a ban would have to come from European level - and given EFSA's verdict it is unlikely that the European Commission will move towards a ban at the present time. The FSA has not passed any judgement on the EFSA conclusions but has just drawn attention on its website to the fact that they have been issued. It did, however, take the opportunity to reiterate its advice on food colours to consumers: "The Agency advises parents of children showing signs of hyperactivity or ADHD that cutting certain artificial colours used in the study from their diets might have beneficial effects. " ​As for the researcher team that carried out the original study, Jim Stevenson, Donna McCann, Edmund Sonuga-Barke and John Warner, they said they are pleased that this scrutiny of their work supports their conclusions that that the mixtures of additives had a measurable effect on the activity and attention of some children. However they said that, despite EFSA saying there is no justification from this research to change the limits on these additives, that does not mean there are no grounds for action at all. "It is the view of the Southampton research team that since the colours being tested in this study are of no nutritional value, even the small overall benefit of removing them from children's diets would come at no cost or risk to the child,"​ they said. "Under these circumstances a benefit, even a small one, would be worthwhile achieving." "Added weight is given to this conclusion, they say, because other important influences on hyperactivity in children, such as genetic factors, are difficult to address while the risk arising from exposure to food colours can be regulated." ​ EFSA drew attention to some uncertainties in the effects of additives on behaviour. The Southampton researchers said these "clearly indicate the need for further research on this important question which is of concern to many parents".

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