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Environment MEPs approve proposal on aspartame pregnancy warning

By Jess Halliday , 21-Apr-2011
Last updated the 21-Apr-2011 at 14:30 GMT

The European Parliament’s Environment committee is pushing for a warning label on products containing aspartame stating that they may not be suitable for pregnant women – despite opinions from EFSA and the French food safety ANSES that scientific evidence does not warrant a reconsideration of the sweetener’s safety.

An amendment to the food labelling proposal, currently in second reading, that would require the words "Contains aspartame (a source of phenylalanine; might be unsuitable for pregnant women)" was put forward by French MEP Corinne Lepage.

It follows the publication of a study Danish epidemiological study that saw a statistical association between the consumption of soft drinks containing sweeteners and increased risk of preterm delivery as a result of a medical decision following complications. The authors said the results, whether or not there is a causal link, needs to be confirmed by other studies.

This study, together with another from Italy reporting increased incidence of cancer in male mice fed very high doses of aspartame, has been reviewed by EFSA and by the French food safety agency ANSES, who said that preliminary examination give no grounds for amending the ADI of 40mg.kg.bw, but that further studies would be monitored.

Fair hearing or role-playing?

Moreover, last month an EFSA scientist took part in a hearing at the European Parliament on aspartame, to explain the work the authority has carried out on the sweetener over the years and the review of the latest studies.

After the hearing, however, Corinne Lepage, invoked the precautionary principle and accused industry, as risk managers, and EFSA, as risk assessor, of “role playing”.

She said that no independent evaluation of the studies had taken place, and that there sound be recommendations for pregnant women so pregnant women can be aware there is some uncertainty over aspartame and decide whether or not to expose themselves to it. The YouTube video below shows Corinne Lepage's intervention.

EFSA responded with disappointment over the reporting of the meeting’s outcome. It said in a statement: “Unfortunately, when reporting the outcomes of this meeting, the organisers of the hearing continue to repeat errors and misinformation. EFSA reaffirms that any possible risks from aspartame have been considered by scientific bodies worldwide and the current Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) ensures consumers are protected…

“EFSA’s most critical commitment is to provide independent scientific advice of the highest quality and it has put in place a very stringent set of procedures and processes to guarantee the independence of its scientific decision-making – as organisers of this event know very well”

Ignoring EFSA?

It is not yet certain that the warning label on aspartame will be included in the new regulation, as the next stage of the law-making process is a series of trilogues between the Parliament, Council and Commission ahead of a vote in plenary in July.

However the amendment on aspartame is not the first time MEPs have sought a warning label on additives for which the Commission’s risk assessor has found no grounds for altering the ADI.

Following the publication of the controversial ‘Southampton study’ which reported a link between cocktails of certain food colourings plus sodium benzoate with hyperactivity in children, MEPs voted on a mandatory warning label on any products containing them – despite EFSA’s opinion that the Southampton study, in its own right, was no grounds for changing recommendations.

EFSA has since lowered the ADIs of some of the colours in question – but for reasons other than a link with hyperactivity, which has not been substantiated in studies on the individual colours.

More recently, MEPs put forward a motion to prohibit a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Commission (EC)-approved DHA omega-3 eye health claim on breast milk substitute products. The motion was narrowly rejected in a vote.

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