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A measure recently agreed in the European Parliament which will see the introduction of mandatory warning labels on foods containing colourings linked to hyperactivity in children provides a further twist in the long-running additives debate. Ben Cooper reports on the reaction of key stakeholders to the latest development.

The adoption by the European Parliament earlier this month of an additional measure relating to food colourings in a package of European food reforms has significant implications for food producers and marks the latest twist in the debate over the links between food additives and hyperactivity in children.

Under the new provision, labels warning of a possible link with hyperactivity will become mandatory throughout the European Union on all food and drink products containing these additives.

The measure was added to the raft of reforms at the second reading stage following discussions between the Council, the Commission and MEPs, and was prompted largely by the publication of a study by researchers at Southampton University last September, after the legislation had already had its first reading.

As the official European Parliament communiqué confirms: “As new scientific data on health risks for children exposed to azo-dyes had emerged since Parliament’s first reading, MEPs managed to include in the compromise a new provision that foods containing some of those food colours (colourings E 110, E 104, E 122, E 129, E 102 and E 124) must be labelled not only with the relevant E number but also with the words ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.”

However, industry representatives says the measure had been incorporated at this late stage as a compromise to placate certain MEPs, in order to ensure that the whole package of reforms was passed, and had therefore not been properly thought through.

The European food industry association, CIAA, the British Retail Consortium and the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF), all point to the ongoing review of the safety of food additives by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), suggesting that it is EFSA’s view which should guide European legislation in this area.

This is the same reservation industry groups have voiced concerning the announcement by the UK’s Food Standards Agency in March that it was recommending to British ministers that they push for a ban of these additives in Europe.

“We firmly believe that what EFSA says should be governing European policy,” says CIAA spokesperson Sabine Henssler, pointing out that EFSA’s review of the Southampton study in March had not recommended any changes to policy on these additives.

“We noted with interest that EFSA’s experts did not find the Southampton study to be conclusive,” Henssler adds. “CIAA believes the advice of EFSA should, by definition, be upheld, defended and respected even despite pressure to the contrary coming from outside sources.”

Meanwhile, Julian Hunt, director of communications at the FDF, suggests that move in the European Parliament has undermined EFSA’s role and its credibility as the EU’s independent food safety advisory body.

Erik Millstone, Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex, goes further, describing the European Parliament intervention in the debate as “a rebuke to EFSA” and an indication that European policymakers were “thoroughly unimpressed” with the EFSA opinion in March.

The pressure Henssler alludes to has come from politicians, academics, the media and a variety of campaign groups, which have welcomed the move as a step along the way to the withdrawal of these ingredients altogether.

“This is in one sense a gain for the consumer, in that it should deter manufacturers from using these ingredients,” says Anna Glayzer of Action on Additives which campaigns for reform in both the UK and the EU. “Our concern is that this will be just one more thing parents are expected to look out for. Even if you do have time to check every label while you shop, you can’t vet everything your child eats outside the home, and if you are eating out you don’t even get to see labels. If we have enough evidence to issue a warning, why not take the burden off the parent and simply ban these colours? They serve no useful purpose in our food.”

Millstone agrees. “If they deserve a warning and if the EU is supposed to be operating on the precautionary principle then they deserve to be banned but the Parliament thinks it doesn’t have the power to ban them and therefore is trying to maxmise its leverage.  But I think the view of the Parliamentarians is that they should be banned, and I think this move is designed to put pressure on the Commission and the member states to agree to ban them.”

Richard Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign in the UK, also has reservations about labelling as a solution. “We welcome that [the European Parliament measure] in as far as it goes. However, we don’t feel labelling is the long-term solution to this problem,” he says. “It is at best a partial solution but I think it does show the continuing level of concern about this issue amongst policymakers in the EU.”

Interestingly, in common with industry stakeholders, Watts also sees the ongoing EFSA review as critical. “I think the position remains that we are waiting for EFSA to give a judgment on these as part of their ongoing review of the safety of particular additives.”

Another possible ramification of the European Parliament intervention is that it could theoretically be superseded by EFSA’s review. Having been added at a comparatively late stage, the measure is very likely to go through and come into operation in about 18 months’ time.

However, EFSA may well begin publishing the results of its safety reviews by the end of the year. While the events of recent months may have wounded EFSA’s credibility, the organisation looks still to have a central role in the debate, with industry advocates and campaigners awaiting its next announcement with eager anticipation, albeit for different reasons.