Monday, February 21, 2005

The dangers of dye

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) hit the headlines last week by demanding the removal from supermarket shelves of 350 processed foods which may contain traces of the banned dye Sudan-I. The dye appears to have been used to colour chilli powder imported from India, but it is illegal to use it in food sold in the EU. The chilli powder was added to worcester sauce, which in turn was added to processed foods, including canned soups and ready meals. 'At the levels present the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any more', said Dr Jon Bell of the FSA.

Sudan-I is not, as frequently stated, a 'known carcinogen' in humans. In large quantities, it does increase the frequency of liver tumours in rats, but not in mice. It is classified as a 'category 3' carcinogen - that is, something for which not enough information in relation to humans is available to make a firm judgement but which has carcinogenic potential.

The old adage 'the dose makes the poison' also suggests there is little risk here. The quantities contained in these ready meals must have been tiny. The chilli powder must only have contained a small fraction of Sudan-I. In turn this was added to the sauce, which therefore only contained a small fraction of the chilli powder. Finally, the finished products will have contained only a small fraction of worcester sauce. The quantities of Sudan-I in the end products must be measured in micrograms.

Nor is Sudan-I peculiarly harmful. When it is consumed, it breaks down into a number of by-products called amines. As the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment notes, 'the carcinogenic action in animal experiments are attributed to the release of amines and their ensuing metabolic activation.' Their report goes on to note that the same amines are found in significant quantities in cabbages and carrots. For example, a day's worth of Sudan-I contaminated chilli powder will, at most, contain the same amount of the amine alinine as 20 grammes of raw carrots. This exposure is in turn thousands of times lower than the levels which produced cancers in rats.

The FSA seems to have self-consciously made a media splash on this issue, in an attempt to reassure the public that it is watching over us. But such tactics tend to have the opposite effect to that intended. These alarms make us more fearful about what we eat, and lend credence to the bogus arguments of those who believe that supermarkets and food processors are reckless about safety in the pursuit of profits. Sudan-I is unnecessary in food preparation, and banning it may be a sensible precaution. But the actions of the FSA in relation to this particular incident have been excessive and counterproductive.

Action taken to remove illegal dye found in wide range of foods on sale in UK,
UK Food Standards Agency, 18 February 2005

Dyes Sudan I to IV in food, Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, 19 November 2003 [pdf format]

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