Safety and Regulation

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Surveys show that there is quite a lot of concern about the safety of food additives. 'E numbers' in particular seem to be a cause of anxiety for many parents of young children. At the same time, people admit to being confused and say they need more information.

So what are the facts?

The first thing to say is that the use of food additives is controlled by law.

An extensive check on the safety of all additives must be carried out before they are allowed in food. Once an additive has been shown to be safe, it can be included on the ‘permitted list’ of food additives. A list of all of the permitted additives, and the foods in which they are allowed, is published in the form of a regulation. Only additives on this legally permitted list can be used in food.

Each stage in the process is set out briefly below.

Safety Testing

In general, food additives must be subjected to a wide range of tests before they are allowed in food. An extensive range of animal and other tests have been devised to assess every conceivable risk to the consumer. Tests assess how the additive reacts in the body and also look for any toxic effects at the levels the additive is to be used in foods. This includes testing to see if there is any chance of genetic damage or cancers being caused by the long-term use of the additive.

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Safe Levels of Additives in Food

"All things are poisons; nothing is without poison; only the dose determines whether there is a harmful effect".

Paracelsus (16th Century Philosopher)

To put it another way, eating a high amount (or dose) of anything will be harmful but at a lower level it can be safe.

In tests, researchers find the level of an additive that has no observable harmful effect. This is considered to be a safe level for humans. An Allowable/Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) is then calculated by further reducing this concentration by an additional safety factor of usually 100.

For example, an additive that has no observable effect in tests at a level of 5 grammes in a kilogram of food would only be allowed up to a level of 50 milligrammes per kilogram.

Safety evaluation

A formal process exists for analyzing the test data on food additives, setting the ADIs and publishing the results. It's called safety evaluation and is carried out at a number of different levels.

At a global level: the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives(JECFA)
JECFA is the scientific advisory body to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It also advises the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which has international responsibility for assessing food safety. The members of JECFA are selected on the basis of their scientific credentials. They make regular safety evaluations of additives in use, and establish Acceptable Daily Intake levels (ADI's) for each additive. Their findings are made public and individual additive assessments can be viewed at www.inchem.org
At a European level: the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
EFSA is the body responsible for all food safety matters in the EU. EFSA was set up in 2002 and is composed of suitably qualified independent experts. Food additives have been in use for a long time, so most of the safety evaluations were carried out by its predecessor the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF). The EFSA and SCF evaluations for individual additives are published on their respective websites.

Regulation of food additives

EU law states that food additives are allowed only if:

From start to finish, it can take 10 years or more to obtain approval for a new food additive in the EU. Five years to carry out safety testing, followed by two years for evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority and at least another three years before the additive receives an EU-wide approval for use in every country in the European Union.

Find out how the law on food additives is enforced