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Advice on health risks in food 'being ignored': Government shuns experts' views for harmony with EC rules

THE RISKS of cancer or behaviour problems from excessive consumption of food additives are being ignored by government as part of a plan to deregulate food and harmonise British regulations with European Community law.

The Government has decided not to introduce a maximum limit for caffeine in soft drinks such as colas although a year ago it said it would do so because of the undesirable behavioural effects which some people, especially children, may experience after taking too much of these drinks. And mineral oils which carry a risk of cancer are still being used in foods although the Government was warned of the risk four years ago by the Food Advisory Committee.

Soft drinks which contain caffeine have the same stimulant effects as coffee - beneficial in restricted amounts but causing anxiety, agitation and sleeplessness if taken in excessive amounts. An adult may take five cups of average coffee per day, or about 12 caffeine soft drinks, before experiencing untoward symptoms.

The recommendation to limit caffeine in soft drinks made by the Food Advisory Committee and the Committee on Toxicology, was based on the calculation that some children would get excessive doses if their recommendation was exceeded. Some children may drink excessive amounts of cola because caffeine is mildly addictive. Drugs have an effect proportional to body size. Small children might be affected by two or three cans of soft drink, making them sleepless and difficult to control.

Nevertheless, the food minister, Nicholas Soames, has now asked the Food Advisory Committee to review its advice. Civil servants have advised him that there is no evidence that high levels of caffeine in soft drinks have adverse effects on children. The ministry points out that high caffeine drinks have occasionally been imported into Britain for sale at rave parties and no evidence of adverse effects have been recorded.

The single market would make it difficult for Britain to have a unilateral ban on high-caffeine soft drinks. It would be possible to request a derogation on health grounds but the ministry believes it would not be able to sustain the argument of its expert committee with the Europeans. At present eight EC countries have a limit of 150mgs per litre for caffeine in soft drinks while Germany has a limit of 250 mgs per litre. In Ireland, and now in Britain, there is no limit.

Other advice from expert committees aimed at reducing health risks of food and drink are now being ignored. Failure to ban mineral oils is in part the result of a new attitude of deregulation at the ministry.

Mineral oils are used for lubricating tins for baking bread, cakes and biscuits, and for lubricating dried fruit. A ban on use of mineral oils would have to be agreed with the EC where mineral oils are still permitted.

Eric Millstone, lecturer in Science Policy at the University of Sussex, said: 'The baking industry quickly went over to the use of vegetable oils when government was advised that use of mineral oils was no longer acceptable. But now that the advice has not been implemented the industry has gone back to mineral oils.

'The whole philosophy of MAFF is now deregulatory and the minister feels free to over-rule his expert committees on the advice of civil servants. It is irresponsible to allow the use of a suspected carcinogen in food when there are perfectly good alternatives and irresponsible to allow unlimited quantities of an addictive substance in drinks which are often given to quite young children.'

EC regulators are now able to over-rule British experts and take decisions about the additives permitted in British food. The Government has failed to introduce stringent controls on claims made for health foods, many of which have no scientific basis, as a result of EC pressure.

The Food Advisory Committee advised that controls should be brought in but the advice was rejected by the Government on the grounds that health claims may help consumers choose healthier diets. A spokesman said that a ban would have to be agreed with the EC.

Margaret Ashwell, who is science director of the British Nutrition Foundation and a member of the Food Advisory Committee, said: 'We are now generally subservient to Brussels and advice cannot be acted upon by ministers as before.'