Children's campaigners today welcomed a recommendation by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to ban six artificial food colourings.

The board of the FSA said UK manufacturers should voluntarily remove the additives from their products by 2009 and also called on the EU to take action.

The FSA wants the E numbers to be removed from food products because of an "accumulating body of evidence" that they are associated with child hyperactivity.

At a meeting in London, the board agreed that the EU should phase out the colourings but said UK manufacturers should voluntarily remove them in the meantime.

The colourings involved are sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124).

UK ministers will now consider the recommendation but the final decision will be made at EU level.

The board's chairwoman, Dame Deirdre Hutton, concluded: "If one puts consumers first, which is our duty, we must recognise that these colours are not necessary and it would be sensible to have them removed from all foods."

In a study for the FSA, researchers at Southampton University looked at the effect of food colouring on behaviour.

Professor Jim Stevenson, who carried out the research, said he believed the effect of the additives posed a threat to psychological health.

More research is to be carried out on the preservative sodium benzoate used in many fizzy drinks.

In a paper to the board, officials said discussions with British companies suggested they would be able to introduce satisfactory alternative ingredients by the end of this year.

However, they said some products where alternatives had been difficult to find, such as canned and mushy peas, Battenberg and angel cakes, Turkish delight and tinned strawberries, "might be lost to the market temporarily or even permanently".

The paper said some consumers would be disappointed by changes in the colour of their food but many others would be content that action had been taken to protect them.

The Children's Food Campaign, which called on the FSA to ban additives linked to hyperactivity in children, welcomed the recommendation.

Spokesman Richard Watts said: "This decision is good news for children and parents, who have known for many years that these additives affect children's behaviour.

"The FSA had little choice other than to take this step as soon as they received scientific evidence that these additives were about as harmful to children as leaded petrol."

Anna Glayzer, of the Food Commission's Action on Additives campaign, said it would be urging the removal of the colourings from medicines such as cold and flu remedies, and intended to contact the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency on the issue.

She said: "We are delighted that the FSA has put its duty to the consumer first in its decision to recommend an EU ban.

"We will be keeping a close eye on the industry to see what effect the voluntary ban has. We will also continue to lobby the European Commission on this issue.

"The onus is now on the European Commission to follow the example of the FSA and act for benefit of the consumer. The colours are totally unnecessary and a risk to children's health. There is no public benefit whatsoever in allowing their continued use."

The Food and Drink Federation said the agency's action was "bizarre" and might be unworkable.

Spokesman Julian Hunt said British manufacturers were already removing such colourings.

He said: "UK food and drink manufacturers are already taking these colours out of products on supermarket shelves, so we are surprised the FSA board feels it is an appropriate use of their powers to call for a voluntary ban.

"The FSA proposal puts the UK at odds with the rest of Europe, where decisions about the safety of additives are made. Such a ban could not apply to imports from Europe since the UK would be the only country to ban these colours, which raises questions about how workable it really is."

In the wake of the Southampton University research, published in September, the FSA advised that cutting the six colourings from the diet of hyperactive children might improve behaviour.

Advice to parents on the issue will now be strengthened, although it will make clear that colourings are not the only or main cause of hyperactivity in children.

In March, Europe's food safety watchdog dismissed the study as too inconclusive to justify updating advice for parents.

The European Food Safety Authority said the results "provided limited evidence that the mixtures of additives tested had a small effect on the activity and function of some children".

The FSA said the Southampton study was of "the highest scientific quality".

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