Last week, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its review of research conducted in the UK into the effects of certain food additives on children’s behaviour. Ben Cooper assesses the response of key stakeholders and asks where EFSA’s findings leave the additives debate.

The publication last week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) of its review of recent research into the effects of food additives on children’s behaviour does not appear to have moved the debate forward significantly.

Indeed, given that the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said it will not be commenting on EFSA’s findings until April and the research team involved has reserved detailed reaction until the FSA offers its own observations, the debate remains in limbo.

While the campaign community in the UK had relatively low expectations of any action by EFSA, the criticisms of the study’s design by the European body are thought to be a cause of some embarrassment to the FSA. Not only did the FSA commission the GBP750,000 study, undertaken by researchers at Southampton University, but helped to design it too.

EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC) said that the study provided “limited evidence” that the mixtures of additives tested, which included sunset yellow colouring, also known as E110, carmoisine, or E122, and the preservative sodium benzoate, or E211, affected activity and attention levels in some children but it noted that the effects observed were not consistent for the two age groups and for the two mixtures used.

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EFSA also said the research was limited by its inability to pinpoint which additives may have been responsible for the effects observed in the children, given that mixtures and not individual additives were tested, and that the study could not be used as a basis for altering the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate.

Following the publication of EFSA’s review, campaigners have turned their attention back to the FSA, calling for unilateral action in the UK. “”It would be unthinkable for no significant action to be taken as a result of the Southampton Study,” said Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign. “No one now disputes these artificial additives pose a threat to children’s health and well being. Given EFSA has let down consumers, our own FSA must now act to remove them from the food chain.”

However, given that the FSA was itself criticised for not taking bolder action when the study was first published in September, it seems a distant hope that it might revise its view having seen what EFSA has had to say. Notwithstanding any embarrassment EFSA’s reservations about the design of the study might cause at the FSA, the agency may at least feel vindicated by the fact that EFSA too has felt that no regulatory response is warranted.

A key element in the research was that it was one of the few to test for and observe changes in behaviour in children in the general population, rather than simply those at risk from hyper-activity. It had therefore disappointed campaigners that the FSA’s response had only been to recommend that parents with at-risk children might avoid certain additives.

EFSA, meanwhile, stated that effects observed in the general population had been too limited. “Although the findings from the study could be relevant for specific individuals showing sensitivity to food additives in general or to food colours in particular, it is not possible at present to assess how widespread such sensitivity may be in the general population,” EFSA said.

However, in its initial response to the EFSA review the University of Southampton research team, led by Professor Jim Stevenson, countered this point by saying that however minor the effects were among ordinary children, the slightest discernible effect was cause for concern and for action, given that the ingredients concerned were of no nutritional value.

The researchers said they were “pleased that this scrutiny of their work, which included an independent re-analysis of the data, supports their conclusion that the mixtures of additives had a measurable effect on the activity and attention of some children. They [EFSA] agree that the average effects for children as a whole are small, but there is considerable variation with some children responding more and others less,” the research team added.

“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.  Under these circumstances a benefit, even a small one, would be worthwhile achieving.”

The response from the Southampton team may have been phrased in the polite and measured tones that academics tend to take when responding to one another, but informed observers suggest that beneath that veneer, the researchers are extremely unhappy with EFSA’s response.

Other academics, however, have been more outspoken. Professor Erik Millstone of Sussex University told just-food: “The AFC panel has tried to invoke every possible wheeze for down-playing, under-interpreting and discounting the findings of Stevenson and colleagues, despite the fact that Stevenson et al’s study was a randomised control trial, which the medical profession treats as its ‘gold standard’. Those wheezes are moreover hypothetical rather than evidence-based. In practice the AFC have, as usual, made a political judgement about the science, rather than a scientific one.”

Millstone added: “The UK Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority were supposedly created to improve food safety policy-making, and to put consumers ahead of industrial interests.  They are clearly failing to meet those aspirations.”

Arguably the only stakeholder which might claim a degree of satisfaction following the EFSA review is the food industry. Its representative body, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), pointed out that the EFSA findings further supported the food industry’s position that the additives being looked at were safe, while also reiterating the industry’s commitment to reducing the use of these ingredients.

“Neither the EFSA opinion nor the Southampton study suggested the safety of the colours researched were in question,” said FDF communications director Julian Hunt. “The UK food and drink manufacturing industry has for a number of years been responding to consumers’ demands for fewer artificial additives in food and drinks. Our members have been reducing the use of the colours highlighted in the study and there is now a wide range of food and drinks on supermarket shelves that contain no artificial colours.”

However, there is another participant which may yet have a telling impact on this debate, and that is the press. Elements of the press in the UK have been critical of the official response to growing consumer concerns over additives. What is more, concerns are running high both in the right-leaning and more liberal press.

In response to the lack of action, the Daily Mail set up a ‘Ban the Additives’ campaign, aimed at putting pressure on manufacturers to remove the controversial ingredients on a voluntary basis. Ironically, newspapers such as The Daily Mail are the first to criticise European institutions for interfering in the lives of UK consumers, so this is one constituent EFSA in particular would have a hard time pleasing.

But as campaigners seek to keep this issue in the news agenda and front-of-mind among politicians and the public, they are likely to receive considerable support from the Fourth Estate, which could well have a significant bearing on the debate in the coming months.