The debate over the links between artificial food colourings and hyperactivity in children is now set to move to the European stage, and the recommendation last week by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) that UK ministers should push for an EU-wide ban on certain colourings suggests there are some interesting discussions ahead. Ben Cooper reports.

The decision last week by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) to push for the voluntary withdrawal of certain food colourings by 2009 and European legislation to ban them entirely over a specified period surprised campaigners and industry representatives alike.

The announcement not only represented a significant change from the FSA’s initial response to recent research into the links between artificial colourings and hyperactivity, but it also seemed out of step with the conclusions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The study in question, commissioned by the FSA and conducted at Southampton University, revealed the strongest evidence to date of a link between certain colourings, in combination with the preservative sodium benzoate, and hyperactivity in children.

Much to the disappointment of campaigners, the FSA’s initial response had been relatively moderate, recommending parents of children showing signs of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) avoid foods containing these ingredients and reminding consumers that by law packaging must detail which additives food products contain. It also passed on the research to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The FSA acknowledged in September that the industry had been making progress in reducing the use of these additives voluntarily, though campaigners suggested the FSA was being rather too attentive to the sensibilities of the food industry. Last month, EFSA stated that it did not believe the study warranted a change in the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for these additives, which once again seemed to militate against strong regulatory action.

When contacted by just-food, an FSA spokesperson pointed out that it had always been its intention to make an initial response, and a further statement following its Board meeting in April. However, industry advocates remain bemused by the apparent change in its stance.

“Something has clearly happened,” says Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). “There is no new evidence on the table. We have had a number of stakeholder meetings, and at the last one I went to there was an acknowledgement around the table, NGOs included, that the industry had moved.”

Hunt said the FSA’s original advice “seemed to be proportionate”, but the agency had clearly been under “huge pressure” to ramp up its response. “Clearly after taking a proportionate response in September it did find itself under attack from single-issue pressure groups and from newspapers.”  Hunt confessed to being “baffled” by the FSA’s decision to call for a voluntary ban, particularly in view of EFSA’s findings. Consumers had increasingly “been voting with their wallets”, he said, and companies had been voluntarily reformulating their products in response.

However, Jeanette Longfield of the food pressure group, Sustain, was sceptical about the claimed progress. The FSA announcement, she said, represented a clear signal that it wanted faster progress. Longfield said she was not surprised by the FSA’s change of policy, given that it was “about time” stronger action was taken. However, she believes the FSA should have taken these steps immediately. “We thought they should have done it from the off. Given that the FSA had funded this study and given that it showed there was a risk, and given the precautionary principle, where else could they go?”

Although technically both the FSA’s call for withdrawal of the additives and industry initiatives are both voluntary, the FSA’s carries much more weight, Longfield said. “It is a clear indication of speed and direction they want it to travel.

Anna Glayzer of Action on Additives suggests the FSA has over-estimated the progress industry is making. “The use of these additives is quite a bit greater than either the FSA or the industry have said,” she told just-food. “We found 1,000 products quite quickly.”

Hunt, however, cited research from Mintel showing that last year alone more than 1,800 products were launched in the UK marketed as free from artificial colourings and flavourings. Retailer own labels and mainstream brands had led the way in reformulating, he said.

A particular concern, Hunt said, is the prospect that UK companies will now be subject to a “quasi-regulatory measure” in the UK, while European companies can still import products into the UK which will not be subject to such restrictions. Glayzer, however, suggested that if as the industry contends demand for these products is falling as consumers choose not to by them, the question of competition from imported products should not be such an issue.

Nevertheless, the question of progress towards harmonisation in this area within the EU is intriguing given the apparent divergence in the views of the FSA and EFSA.

Regarding whether the FSA now appears to be at odds with EFSA, Hunt said: “I think it makes things more confused. It [the FSA view] does seem to run counter to EFSA’s advice. I think generally there seems to be a disconnect between where the UK is and the rest of Europe.”

Longfield was also bemused by the apparent divergence between EFSA’s view and that of the FSA, as “they are looking at the same evidence”. She forecast that there would be “battle joined” in the EU if UK ministers follow the FSA’s advice and push for an EU ban. “I think EFSA should start the process of changing their policy on it. I really don’t think they have a leg to stand on. If you look at the risk and benefit side of it, it’s all risk and no benefit.”

However, this raises the question of whether EFSA should actually have a “policy” on this at all. While the FSA and EFSA can be viewed in some ways as counterpart organisations, the former has both a risk assessment and policy function, whereas EFSA’s responsibilities are only concerned with assessing risk, and passing its findings on to the European Commission. It is for DG Sanco and the Council of Ministers to determine policy.

Glayzer contended that in its response EFSA may have strayed from its direct remit of risk assessment into risk management. EFSA has in the past also been criticised for being too heavily influenced by corporate stakeholders. “One of the things we would like to see coming out of this is a little more transparency about how EFSA comes to its decisions,” Glayzer says.

The FSA has also at times been accused by campaigners of being too easily influenced by industry pressure. Indeed, many campaigners made such accusations following its response in September. However, judging by Hunt’s comments following the latest announcement, the FSA is now rather less open to such criticism.

What also appears clear is that the FSA’s more radical stance promises to make ensuing discussions within the EU all the more interesting. Glayzer believes there is a considerable way to go in that debate but “it will be interesting to see how that plays out with the UK saying publicly that they support an outright ban”.