The re-‘E’valuation of Europe’s food additives

Feature story
30 January 2012

EFSA is re-evaluating all food additives by 2020. Why can consumers feel confident?

Over the past few decades the European Union (EU) has put in place a robust food safety system that helps to ensure that consumers are protected from possible food-related risks. Despite this, European consumers express concerns about the safety of what they eat. This includes possible adverse effects of food additives such as colours, preservatives or flavourings; in 2010, the presence of these substances in food was a worry for 66% of Europeans (with 25% ‘very worried’ and 41% ‘fairly worried’). This marks a five point increase on 2005. (Eurobarometer, No 354, 2010).

All food additives currently used in the EU have been assessed for safety by EFSA and/or its predecessor, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), and are only included on the official EU list of approved food additives if they are considered safe for human health. In addition, whenever necessary, previous safety assessments have been reviewed and updated to take into account new scientific information pointing at a possible concern for health. To bring this process up to date, the European Commission asked EFSA in 2010 to re-evaluate the safety of all previously authorised food additives by 2020, taking into account the latest science. Based on EFSA’s scientific advice, the European Commission and Member States may decide together to change the uses of additives or if needed to remove them from the EU list of authorised food additives in order to protect consumers.

There are almost 400 listed ‘E’ numbers with a variety of approved uses for many of them. How is EFSA tackling this major challenge?

There are hundreds of food additives and thousands of ways to use them for producing food and drinks. In support of EFSA’s work, EU legislation specifies a timetable for their re-evaluation and the criteria for priority setting (e.g. when the food additive was last evaluated, whether or not there is new scientific evidence or an emerging concern). The timetable is largely organised by type of food additive; the EU has defined 26 so-called ‘functional classes’ of food additives, which include colours, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, antioxidants, glazing agents and others. Food colours are being re-evaluated first as they were among the first additives to be authorised for use in the EU. Many sweeteners, in contrast, were approved more recently and are scheduled for review after 2015. EFSA can also re-prioritise a food additive in light of new information; for example, the deadline for the artificial sweetener aspartame was brought forward from 2020 to 2013 due to concerns raised regarding recent studies.

EFSA’s ability to re-evaluate the safety of a food additive, depends greatly on the availability of scientific data. With new food additives, an applicant is required to submit a detailed technical dossier for scientific evaluation. This is not the case for food additive re-evaluations and therefore the data have to be obtained by means of a public call. Through these calls EFSA looks to acquire both new and emerging data as well as any original scientific studies submitted in support of the prior authorisation by the EU.

EFSA has already launched more than ten calls for data covering entire groups or classes of food additives and/or specific to one or a small number of related food additives. Through careful planning EFSA screens and organises the scientifically relevant data in advance of their consideration by EFSA’s experts. The data sent by scientists, research centres, competent national authorities and other interested parties ensure that EFSA does the best evaluation possible using the most reliable and currently available scientific data.

Is EFSA receiving enough data? Are the re-evaluations having any impact?

As of 2012, EFSA has completed the re-evaluation of most food colours and, looking further forward, adopted its first non-food colour re-evaluation in 2011: an antioxidant called butylated hydroxyanisole or BHA (E 320). The Authority has made headway in collecting data for the remaining colours as well as for many preservatives, antioxidants, waxes, emulsifiers and gelling agents. However, EFSA is sometimes required to issue further calls for data due to a lack of sufficient information being available.

Amongst the food additives re-evaluated, EFSA decreased the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for three food colours (E 104, E 110, E 124) since it considered in light of new data that human exposure to these colours is likely to be higher than originally assessed. As a result, in March 2012, the European Commission lowered the maximum levels of these colours that can be used in food.

Another significant impact from this work was the withdrawal of the colour Red 2G (E 128) from the market in 2007. New scientific evidence made available at that time indicated that use of this food additive could be a safety concern: as well being carcinogenic, Red 2G could also cause damage to the genetic material of human cells. EU decision-makers agreed with EFSA’s experts that this food additive could not be regarded as safe for humans and it was subsequently suspended from use in the EU.