We'll fight them on the beaches of Blackpool: Joanna Blythman hears the British in Brussels defend food colours as part of our national heritage

Would you sob into your drink if you were deprived of a vivid red cocktail cherry? Would you refuse to buy a wedge of Red Leicester cheese if it was the colour of a cantaloupe melon, rather than Day-Glo orange?

Frankly, most food-aware consumers would not shed a tear. Our food shopping has become more sophisticated. We know a raspberry yoghurt does not have to look pink to taste of fruit; that a haddock can be smoked without also being dyed yellow.

The food industry in Britain has taken note of the trend and reacted accordingly. Of 44 permitted food colours in this country, relatively few now find their way into our basic foodstuffs. This made all the more bizarre the extravagant performances of some British politicians at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last month.

While debating a new directive on food colourings, MEPs were treated to a spirited display of highly charged emotions. Food colouring was defended as if it were as much a part of our patrimony as the House of Windsor.

Conservative MEPs brandished sticks of Blackpool rock before bemused European colleagues. 'Our fathers, our grandfathers, even our great- grandfathers have had their seaside holidays embellished by its succulence and crunchiness,' said Michael Welsh, MEP for Lancashire Central.

'Alas, if the European Commission has its way, this particularly lustrous and attractive pink colour will no longer be allowed.'

'I hold in my hand a doomed product. Its demise will put the Lancashire resorts into mourning,' intoned Lord Inglewood, representing Cumbria and Lancashire North.

Thumping a drum for Britain against the evil machinations of the Brussels Bogeymen is always a popular sport among Conservative MEPs. On this occasion, however, the target of Mr Welsh's remarks was more specific - the British Labour opposition, led by Pauline Green, whom he referred to as 'Nanny Green and the old bags on the opposite side'. (Like the Brussels Bogeymen, the spectre of the nanny state, depriving her citizens of their naughty pleasures, is always worth throwing in.)

Apologising for her colleague, Conservative food spokeswoman Caroline Jackson attributed the outburst to the effects of eating the dreaded rock - a delicious little concoction of sugar and seven additives. But she, too, warned against the Parliament falling victim to a bout of 'politicians' bossy-food syndrome'. She added ominously, 'I have seen the socialist future, and it is grey.'

Nevertheless, the Parliament voted convincingly for a more cautious approach to the use of colourings, though a second reading is still to come.

It is proposed that two controversial red colours should be banned because of their possible toxic effects. These are E127 Erythrosine (used in the eponymous rock, liquorice allsorts and glace cherries) and E128 Red 2G (used in British sausages and luncheon meat). These two colours are already off-limits in some EC countries such as Denmark.

The Parliament also supported restrictions on a number of other colours that are currently permitted. If it has its way, the use of annatto for example, the substance that gives Red Leicester and Double Gloucester cheeses their colour, would be reduced by 80 per cent and most basic foodstuffs such as meat, fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables and cereals would be colour-free. It would mean an end to coloured milk and yoghurt, yellow-dyed haddock and the sort of chicken that has a 'roasted' look achieved with colouring.

Further opposition to the proposed changes can be expected from the European Commission itself. Its line is that any colour approved by its own Scientific Committee for Food is safe. Yet this committee has its critics.

British Conservatives, including Miss Jackson, deplore its unwillingness to say why it has given the go- ahead to certain colourings and not others. More outspoken commentators say the committee is heavily lobbied by the chemicals industry and is not impartial.

The area that no one seems to be researching is the cumulative effect of additives in general - colourings, stabilisers, preservatives and emulsifiers. A growing number of children live on sweets, fizzy drinks and processed foods, rarely consuming 'real' food. Individual safe limits do not take account of them any more than they do of those on low incomes, who eat more coloured foods than anyone else.

Those concerned about food quality as well as safety realise that we do not need colours. Unlike other props in the food manufacturer's armoury, such as preservatives (which have their positive as well as negative effects), food colourings are purely cosmetic. All they amount to is visual deception.

Sausages are a case in point. Rearguard interests in the meat industry argue that without its characteristic pink, consumers would not be able to tell a beef sausage from a pork variety.

But most sausage-eaters can read a label. Colour may trick the consumer into thinking the sausage contains more meat than it does, and could conceivably give the product a longer shelf-life because it looks fresher. The high-quality butcher who has always made a good, honest sausage would still have plenty of room to manoeuvre, even with the suggested new restrictions.

While European Christian Democrats have generally supported restrictions on food colourings, why are British Conservatives rushing to the defence of food colourings?

Miss Jackson explains the position: 'The British consumer has always been fortunate in having a wider choice of food with or without additives. Other member states do not use so many colourings because their food industry is not as advanced as ours.'

It is a moot point whether fellow Europeans regard Blackpool rock as evidence of the evolved state of Britain's food industry, but tradition as well as progess is a central plank in the food colourists' case. In this argument a 'traditional' product seems to be any food to which modern consumers have become accustomed.

Kippers dipped in dye to make them brown have become 'traditional', even though their colour came from slow smoking over wood chips. The generous helping of annatto colouring in modern Red Leicester has become 'traditional' because it has been used for the past 60 years. But Red Leicester's history stretches back long before that.

MEPs who support the status quo have managed to push through four 'traditional' exceptions to the 'natural food therefore no colouring' rule. On the British front, kippers will probably continue to be dyed brown, and mushy peas will stay green.

The Strasbourgeois are likely to be allowed to continue putting canthaxanthin - a colour now banned in fish feed - into their eponymously named spongy sausages. (One taste of Saucisses de Strasbourg was enough to convince me the Strasbourgeois are welcome to them.) The Danes will most probably continue to colour their lumpfish roe.

What of Blackpool rock? E127 Erythrosine (that 'traditional' Lancashire colouring) and the like will be the battleground in the months to come. Will young tourists rise up in its defence with their buckets and spades? It could be an eventful summer.

(Photograph omitted)

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