Sweeteners and colourings in food aimed at children should be banned, while additives ought to be used in other products only if they provide an advantage to the consumer, said the EU Environment Committee.
Food additives have received much media attention recently, particularly in the aftermath of last year's publication of the Southampton study linking certain additives to hyperactivity, which has fuelled national and international debates on their use.
Now, in a second reading vote on four draft regulations concerning the use of additives, enzymes and flavourings, which are part of the Commission's Food Improvement Agents Package (FIAP), MEPs voted that current legislations need to be updated.
The proposal states that a food additive may be authorised only "if it is safe in use, if there is a technicological need for its use, if its use does not mislead the conusmer and if it has advantages and benefits to him".
In addition, "food additives would be completely banned in unprocessed food, as would sweeteners and colours in food for babies and small children".
MEPs also want member states to have the power to prohibit certain categories of additives in traditional foods produced in their territory.
The proposals must now be agreed on by the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in July, and by the governments of the member states.
Should the proposals be accepted and controls on the use of additives made stricter, it could have far-reaching effects across the industry, requiring huge investment in time and money to adapt products to meet new regulations.
Many companies with the means for such extensive reformulation have already begun to take such action, responding to growing concerns from consumers.
Swedish Social Democrat MEP Asa Westlund, who drew up two reports agreed on by the Committee, said: "I'm really pleased for the children in the EU. University studies have shown that a cocktail of azo dyes make kids hyper-active. The Commission must follow the precautionary principle on food additives."
The precautionary principle states that the absence of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to delay measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or to the environment.
The committee decided that a more transparent authorisation procedure is required for all additives, enzymes and flavourings, and those that are already on the market should be re-evaluated under the new procedure.
They also said food additives banned in all unprocessed food and sweeteners and colourings should banned in food for babies and children
Those products containing azo dyes (artificial colourings) should carry clearer labelling with a warning for children, such as: "Azo dyes may provoke allergenic effects and hyperactivity in children."
Furthermore, an additive should only be authorised if it has been proved safe for use without any undesirable side effects; its use does not mislead the consumer; there is a technological need for its use; it has advantage and benefits for the consumer.
The benefits for the consumer can include:
- Preserving the nutritional quality of the food
- Providing necessary ingredients or constituents for foods manufactured for groups of consumers with special dietary needs
- Enhancing the keeping quality or stability of a food or improving its organoleptic properties, provided that the nature, substance or quality of the food is not changed in such a way as to mislead the consumer
- Aiding in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, transport or storage of food, including food additives, food enzymes and food flavourings.
Last month, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) concluded that artificial colours linked to hyperactivity in children by the Southampton study should be phased out in Europe.
The colours in question were tartrazine (E102), quinoline yellow (E104), sunset yellow (E110), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124) and allura red (E129).
While the conclusions did not result in an immediate ban, the FSA recommended the UK push for voluntary removal of the additives through extensive reformulation while advising the European regulators to implement a ban.
Following its review the European Food Safety Authority, the food risk assessor for the European Commission, has deemed the Southampton study as insufficient evidence on the safety of the colourings, but is currently carrying out a full reassessment of all additives. As yet, therefore, there has been no ban implemented in Europe.
While some have raised concerns over the possible reformulation hurdles facing some manufacturers should an eventual ban come into place, others welcomed the move.
Forty-two organisations across Europe have united to call for the Commission to suspend the use of the six colourings linked to hyperactivity in the Southampton study.
The study, published in The Lancet last year, looked at the effect of mixes of additives on a range of children aged between three and nine and drawn from general population and across a range of hyperactivity and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) severities.
Mix A contained sunset yellow, tartrazine, carmoisine, ponceau 4R and sodium benzoate. Mix B contained sunset yellow, quinoline yellow, carmoisine, allura red and sodium benzoate.
The researchers concluded that artificial food colours and additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviour in children at least up to middle childhood.