The European Commission has adopted a directive to reduce the level of a potentially harmful food-colouring pigment, canthaxanthin, that is allowed in animal feed.

Canthaxanthin is a pigment used as a feed additive to colour food, particularly adding a reddish colour to salmon, egg yolks and poultry products. Following scientific assessments establishing a link between high canthaxanthin intake and eyesight problems, the Commission has adopted a directive to reduce the authorised level of canthaxanthin in animal feed. This directive was agreed recently by the Member States in a vote in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health.

Commissioner David Byrne welcomed the decision, saying “Scientific assessments have shown that a high intake of canthaxanthins produces an accumulation of pigments in the retina, affecting the sight. The use of this feed additive is purely cosmetic, to colour food, and reduced levels of the additive will not adversely affect the taste or quality of our food which is why I wholeheartedly welcome today’s decision to reduce the authorised levels of canthaxanthins.”

In nature, salmon gets its pinkish colour from its shrimp diet and consumers expect the same colour from farmed salmon, which is why feed additives such as canthaxanthins have been used. In the case of poultry, canthaxanthin is used to give the skin and egg yolks a brighter yellow colour, again because of consumer preference. Removing this additive will not adversely affect the quality of the food, merely its colour.

In 1995, the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) set an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of up to 0.03 mg per kg human body weight. In 1997, the EU Scientific Committee on Food recognised the link of canthaxanthin intake and retinal problems and came to the same conclusion regarding the ADI.

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Following this 1997 conclusion, the Commission asked the Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition (SCAN) to review the maximum levels of canthaxanthin in feed for laying hens and other poultry, as well as salmon and trout, in order to ensure consumer safety. On 17 April 2002, SCAN concluded that the current authorisation levels of up to 80 mg canthaxanthin/kg feed are too high. Maximum levels should instead be set at be 25 mg/kg feed for salmonids and broilers and 8 mg/kg for laying hens.

The directive as adopted today will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the Official Journal and will then have to be implemented in national legislation by 1 December 2003.