European Commission urged to ban food additive E171: ‘Prevention is better than cure’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/petrroudny
©GettyImages/petrroudny

Related tags: Titanium dioxide, France, Additives

A joint letter requesting the Commission ban the use of titanium dioxide, or food additive E171, across the bloc has been penned by nine EU-level civil society organisations.

In the letter​ to European Commission vice-president Jykri Katainen, the organisations demand the removal of E171 from the EU list of permitted food additives.

Signatories include the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), foodwatch international, and Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE). The letter has also received the support of 30 national organisations.

The letter comes just days after France announced plans to ban the additive in food products from January 2020. According to France’s health and safety agency (ANSES), a lack of evidence guaranteeing the safety of titanium dioxide informed the decision.

E171 is a colouring with no nutritional value. It is predominantly used in sweets, chewing gum, baked good, and sauces, to give a white, opaque or cloudy effect. It can also be found in paints and is used in sun cream because it reflects UV light.

However, the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified titanium dioxide as a possible human carcinogen.

The EU Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed is due to examine France’s request on May 13. The signatories hope the committee will respect ANSES’ decision. 

“…We urge you to not raise any objections or initiate any legal proceedings against the French measure.

“Ahead of the European elections, any move to challenge or delay the French measure would risk sending the wrong signal to EU citizens, who expect the EU to put their health and safety first,” ​write the organisations. 

The safety debate

When the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) investigated the safety of titanium dioxide as a food additive, it concluded E171 does not suggest any immediate health concern.

However, as the BEUC’s senior food policy Camille Perrin pointed out, EFSA did identify data gaps which prevented a complete re-evaluation of the additive.

Industry has failed to provide this missing data and moreover, in the meantime, new studies have raised concern over E171 safety, as highlighted in the recent report from ANSES,” ​Perrin told FoodNavigator.

“In light of this, it is high time EU policy-makers applied the precautionary principle and removed E171 from the EU list of permitted food additives.”​ 

For the BEUC, removing E171 from the register is about “applying the precautionary principle”, ​which Perrin told us can be translated as “prevention is better than cure”.

“The E171 additive is not needed from a technological point of view. It is only used for aesthetic purpose, has no nutritional value, nor does make foods last longer for instance. In brief, it brings no benefit to consumers,” ​said continued.

foodwatch international, an organisation that fights for safe, healthy, and affordable food across Europe, similarly respects the ‘precautionary principle’, executive director of foodwatch France, Karine Jacquemart told this publication.

The watchdog does this by advocating for the exclusion of all potentially harmful substances from food products, she continued. “The food additive titanium dioxide (Ti02 – E 171), which contains nanomaterials, is definitely one of them…” 

“foodwatch indeed supports the ban of foodstuffs containing the food additive titanium dioxide (TiO2 – E 171), but regrets that the decision is not yet taken at European level, which is necessary for protecting all European consumers.” ​- Karine Jacquemart, executive director of foodwatch France

However, for the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association (TDMA), a Brussels-based membership body representing the interests of titanium dioxide manufacturers, France’s decision – which prompted the nine organisations to pen the letter – is unfounded. 

“It is correct that the IARC has suggested that inhalation of TiO₂ is ‘possible carcinogenic to human’. However, the IARC classification relates to inhalation only and is thus of little relevance to E171 in food since it cannot be inhaled,” ​spokesperson Mathias Kirkegaard told FoodNavigator. 

The membership body also questions the relevance of the rat studies that informed the IARC’s assessment. “The carcinogenic effects seen in these studies results from an effect called ‘lung overload’ which rats develop when inhaling exceptionally high concentration of unbound dusts, including TiO2​.

“This effect is generally recognised to be unique to rats and not applicable to humans.”

The fact that in more than 50 years of use as a colourant, no verifiable link has been shown between general intake of TiO2​ and ill health in humans, further supports TDMA’s position, Kirkegaard continued.

“E171 has gone through rigorous European testing and classification, which proved that TiO2​ has not been found to persist or accumulate in the human body or the environment.”​ 

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