Artificial colours linked to hyperactivity in children by the Southampton study should be phased out in Europe, said the UK Food Standards Agency today.
The conclusions will not result in an immediate ban, but the FSA will recommend the UK push for voluntary removal of the additives through extensive reformulation while advising the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to implement a ban.
There has been widespread concern about the effects of certain colours on children since the study's publication last September. Although no ban has yet been enforced, many manufacturers have taken voluntary measures to remove the additives from their product.
"If one puts consumers first, then the evidence suggests it would be sensible for these colours to be taken out of the food that children eat, and by definition, out of all foods as you cannot separate the food that adults and children eat," concluded FSA Chair Dame Deirdre Hutton at today's board meeting.
"We do recognise that phasing out colours in Europe would take some time. But we would like to see voluntary action by manufacturers in the UK to remove them by 2009."
However, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the UK industry, was shocked by the decision, believing manufacturers currently carry out sufficient reformulation.
Initiating a ban
The colourings investigated in the Southampton study were sunset yellow (E110), tartrazine (E102), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red (E129).
A formal European ban on these ingredients would have far-reaching effects on the industry, requiring huge investment in time and money, and would have to be instigated by the Commission via EFSA.
EFSA concluded in March that the study gave no basis for changing acceptable daily intakes (ADI) of food additives, due to inconsistencies in the study and the inability to attribute the effect to any additives in particular as none of them were tested in isolation.
Although there is the possibility for member states to initiate their own ban, the FSA had previously concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the need for individual action by the UK.
FSA's new advice for phasing out the use of the colours could change this however, as consensus at the meeting leaned towards more definitive action made by the UK.
The board agreed a ban led by the Commission would take many years to implement. Therefore, FSA will also advise ministers that the UK pushes for a voluntary removal of the ingredients by manufacturers by 2009.
Many companies with the means for such extensive reformulation have already begun to take such action, responding to growing concerns from consumers.
Companies' willingness to undergo voluntary reformulation might increase on the back of the FSA suggestion for more detailed and clearer advice to parents on the consumption of the additives.
However, reformulation has been hard for certain products for which suitable replacements have not been found. Confectionery, a sector largely targeted at children, has faced the most difficulties in removing the additives.
The board exempted sodium benzoate from their advised ban, saying this ingredient appeared in both mixtures in the study, but the effects on hyperactivity were inconsistent.
Furthermore, the ingredient is widely used in the industry for preservation and appears naturally in foods, and would therefore require even greater reformulation.
Responding to the FSA decision, Julian Hunt, Food and Drink Federation Director of Communications said: "The FSA proposal puts the UK at odds with the rest of Europe, where decisions about the safety of additives are made. Such a ban could not apply to imports from Europe since the UK would be the only country to ban these colours, which raises questions about how workable it really is."
Hunt also raised concerns about the reformulation that would be required to remove the colourings.
He said: "UK food and drink manufacturers are already taking these colours out of products on supermarket shelves, so we are surprised the FSA Board feels it is an appropriate use of their powers to call for a voluntary ban.
"The overwhelming majority of products don't contain these particular colours. However, there are a handful of popular food and drinks where reformulation has not been possible for technical reasons and we are concerned these will have to be taken off shop shelves."
The study, which was published in The Lancet, 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 (E110), tartrazine (E102), carmoisine (E122), ponceau 4R (E124) and sodium benzoate (E110). Mix B contained sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211).
The effects on the children's behaviour were assessed using a global hyperactivity aggregate (GHA) based on aggregated scores of observed behaviours and ratings by teachers and parents, plus, for those aged eight and nine, a computerised test of attention.
The researchers concluded that artificial food colours and additives exacerbate hyperactive behaviour in children at least up to middle childhood.