Controversial food dyes in U.S. to be labeled in Europe, not here

American food products containing potentially harmful dyes will now be forced to carry warning labels when sold in the European Union -- a precaution not required for American consumers, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The 27-member European Union (EU) recently mandated that most foods containing artificial food dyes must bear warning labels declaring that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." It's unclear exactly how many food products will now be required to carry the warning label, says the CSPI, since Europeans have traditionally used far less artificial dye than Americans. The British government asked companies to remove most artificial dyes in December 2009.

The CSPI hopes the new EU labeling rule catches the attention of officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which it says has not shown interest in protecting American consumers from the dyes.

Because the FDA hasn't required U.S. food manufacturers to switch to safer natural colorings, the CSPI says, many American companies sell artificially dyed food in the United States but not in Europe. For example, the topping in McDonald's Strawberry Sundae sold in the United States contains Red 40, while in the United Kingdom, the topping's color comes from strawberries.

"At this point, American food manufacturers and regulators alike should be embarrassed that we're feeding kids foods with chemicals that have such a powerfully disruptive impact on children's behavior," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a statement. "European officials are taking the issue much more seriously, and are moving toward a safer food supply as a result."

Synthetic food dyes have been suspected of triggering behavioral problems in children since the 1970s, when Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, found that his patients improved when artificial dyes were removed from their diets. According to the CSPI, numerous controlled studies conducted over the next three decades proved that some children's behavior is worsened by artificial dyes.

A 2004 analysis concluded artificial dyes affect children's behavior, and two recent studies funded by the British government found that mixtures of dyes, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, do the same thing as well. In 2008, CSPI filed a regulatory petition calling on the FDA to ban dyes because of the problems documented in children.

Representative Louise Slaughter, Chairman of the House Rules Committee and the only microbiologist serving in Congress, has twice written the FDA expressing concern about the widespread use of artificial dyes in food.

"This is a sensible policy and a smart move to help protect the health and well being of children in Europe," Slaughter wrote. "For too long, studies have raised questions about the impact food dyes are having on the development of children and the possible link between dyes and behavior. I have been troubled by the lack of solid data on this issue for more than a decade. It's my hope that the Food and Drug Administration reviews the abundance of science on this issue and considers implementing a similar restriction or outright ban."

Besides being linked to behavior problems in children, food dyes are also inadequately tested and may pose cancer risks as well, according to a CSPI report published last month: Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks.
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