Was 11 days too long to wait for a health alert, if it took 85 years to ban Sudan 1?

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The Independent Online

Another week, another food scare. This time it is Sudan 1, a synthetically produced red dye, normally used for colouring solvents, oils, waxes, petrol and shoe and floor polishes, which has been found in nearly 500 food products.

Another week, another food scare. This time it is Sudan 1, a synthetically produced red dye, normally used for colouring solvents, oils, waxes, petrol and shoe and floor polishes, which has been found in nearly 500 food products.

The dye, a class-3 carcinogen, causes cancer in animals, but there is no evidence that it does in humans. It has been banned in the US since 1918, and in the EU since 1995, but ended up in Worcester sauce here in 2005, even though the UK banned it in 2003.

The offending batch of chilli powder that went into the sauce was imported from India in 2002, just prior to the ban taking effect in the UK, and so was not subject to the same degree of stringent controls as chilli powder imported subsequently. Although this raises the question of why the manufacturer, Premier Foods, thought of grinding this colourful, three-year-old chilli into its Worcester sauce, it is also highly likely that no one food company will get the blame for this scare, even if it led to the biggest packaged food recall in British history.

From a risk perspective this is a largely unsubstantiated story. The substance, according to the Food Standards Authority (FSA), is not particularly dangerous. So there was no need for the media to amplify the risks in the way they did and to frighten the public. People are already highly risk-averse when it comes to what food is unsafe to eat, following past food scandals. This scare will make people even more risk averse and, as a result, they may avoid Worcester sauce - including the totally innocent Lea & Perrins variety - and use other types of flavourings such as salt, which has its own health issues. Investors, on the other hand, have not been frightened. City analysts now take the view that the financial impact on Premier Foods appears limited.

The media have made the FSA the main culprit of this scare. This is not fair. The FSA's chairman, Sir John Krebs, has been attacked for his slow response. Premier Foods told the FSA on 7 February that Sudan 1 had been uncovered in chilli powder, but it was not until 18 February that the product recall was announced. In fact, the agency could not have released the information earlier, as it was working with Premier Foods to see how far the chilli powders had spread through the food chain. Had the FSA issued some form of announcement immediately, without the full facts, it would have made a volatile situation still worse.

On top of this, the agency has been blamed for not finding the Sudan 1 dye in the first place. It was uncovered by an Italian laboratory working on behalf of Premier Foods. This shouldn't be a surprise, as the FSA makes only random checks on supplies, while the food industry is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe at all times and meets legal guidelines. Where Premier Foods seeks to have its products tested, is up to it, not the FSA.

There are a number of questions that arise from this scare. First, why can't nations/trade blocks have uniform regulatory guidelines? Why, for example, did the US ban Sudan 1 in 1918, and the EU not ban it until 1995? And why did Britain delay it even longer? Was it a case of waiting for more detailed risk assessments or were there other issues? The FSA was criticised for taking 11 days to make a response. Following the US ban, shouldn't the Department of Health be criticised for waiting 85 years to ban Sudan 1?

In addition, although the FSA mentioned that the substance posed a small risk, the public has a right to be confused about the product withdrawal. Did the regulatory action warrant the size of the risk? Arguably not. So what is going to happen when we have a real risk scare?

Although this was the biggest packaged food recall in British history, there was little risk and minimal danger to health. Sudan 1 was given such prominence because of its associations with cancer. Yet this was far from being a highly cancerous substance. Consumers have other issues, such as processed foods and ready meals, that will affect them more in the long term. We need to put the risks into perspective and start growing up.

Ragnar Lofstedt is professor of risk management at King's College, London. ragnar.lofstedt@kcl.ac.uk

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