Parliament adopts stricter rules for food additives

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MEPs rejected firm bans on colourings in favour of stronger labelling systems, although Green MEPs regretted that these will not cover GMO additives.

Parliament's final report on food additives, adopted on 8 July, underlines that sweeteners, colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, gelling agents and packaging gases can only be authorised if they are safe for consumers and if there is a technological need for their use. In addition, additives need to present "advantages and benefits to consumers".

The Environment Committee's recommendation for a ban on bright colouring additives in food - which came after scientific research found that they can cause hyperactivity in children (see EurActiv 07/05/2008) - did not get the House's approval.

Instead, MEPs agreed that foods containing some of those colours must, in addition to the traditional E number, carry a label stating that the product "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children". 

Furthermore, the Parliament stressed that a food additive can only be authorised if it is safe to use, if there is a technological need for its use and if its use does not mislead the consumer. 

Regarding nanotechnology in food additives, the House did not stick to its first reading call for separate limit values for nanotech. Instead, the legislation now states that a new authorisation process and safety evaluation must be carried out if an additive's production process is changed.

The report on flavourings, which are used to modify the smell and taste of foodstuffs, introduces stricter rules for the use of the term 'natural' when describing flavourings. A flavouring shall be deemed 'natural' only if 95% of its element is of natural origin. This is a slightly stricter limit than the 90% proposed by the Commission. 

The new legislation also sets stricter rules on the level of toxins in "certain food ingredients with flavouring properties" such as herbs and spices. However, the Parliament ruled that these limits will not apply to fresh, dried or frozen herbs and spices used either in restaurants or in industrially-processed food. The Commission had proposed only exempting the restaurants.

As for enzymes, used in foodstuffs as an alternative to chemicals to improve texture, appearance and nutritional value, the House ruled that they can only be authorised if they do not mislead consumers regarding the freshness, nature and quality of the products or their naturalness and nutritional quality.

Positions: 

The centre-right EPP/ED Group in the European Parliament noted that the regulation on enzymes is the first specific EU legislation on food enzymes. Currently "there are no harmonised rules at Community level controlling the use of enzymes," which according to the EPP-ED has not only created barriers to trade and a lack of legal certainty, but also "differing standards of health and consumer protection" across the EU 27.

The Greens/EFA group expressed its disappointment that the regulation will not ban azo dyes, demand labelling of GMO additives or include post-harvest plant protection products used as preserving agents. "However we are pleased that nanoparticles with the same chemical formula as traditional additives will now be considered as new additives because of their totally different properties," added Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter

Ahead of the final vote GUE/NGL group MEP Kartika Liotard underlined that "maximum consumer protection and complete transparency" should "always transcend economic interests". 

Timeline: 
  • In parallel to the authorisation procedure for new additives, flavourings and enzymes the substance already on the market will gradually be re-evaluated. Currently authorised substances may remain on the market but, after the updating process is complete, any substance not on the approved list will be banned.
  • By 2010: The regulations could come into effect.
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