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September 09, 2007

Good Grief!

Grr.

The Lancet’s report is a shocker, but what made me tremble was the response from a government that has just declared itself paternalistically so concerned with our nation’s children. Instead of immediately banning the six common E-numbers and the preservative sodium benzoate as other countries including Norway and Sweden already have, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) passed the buck to the European Food Safety Authority, to see whether it wanted to impose a ban.

Sweden hasn't banned them. They did, in the past, but they had to allow them again. And the UK Government has to pass the matter up to the EU. Because this is now an EU competence, not a national government one. This is what being in the EU means: that we can't make our own decisions. Capisce

September 9, 2007 in European Union | Permalink

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Comments

I wondered about that Swedish reference and how that worked, so thanks for further exposing her ignorance.

Posted by: The Englishman | Sep 9, 2007 11:37:24 AM

Oh, they CAN ban them unilaterally, just as Sweden have. They just haven't got the balls to confront industry pressure at national level, so they're passing the buck to Europe.

This happens a lot. It's one of the reason why Europe persists. It ends up facing the dragons, not always very effectively, for national regulatory cowards.

Posted by: The Aunt | Sep 9, 2007 12:34:22 PM

Why do we need to ban these additives? The supermarkets are full of additive and preservative "free" products. If your child, one of an unlucky few, that suffers an adverse reaction to a product they should switch brands.

Posted by: Kit | Sep 9, 2007 12:53:05 PM

Why do we need to ban these additives? The supermarkets are full of additive and preservative "free" products.

You think I should have to carefully look at everything I buy in the shops, note what additives it contains, and check them off against a list of harmful ones? And that I should carefully read all medical journals to check for new evidence of additives being harmful? If you do, you're an idiot.

Better would be either to (1) ban these additives altogether, or (2) have some sort of scheme such that if you really want to you can buy food with these additives, but it's easy not to.

Tim adds: Err, yes. "You think I should have to carefully look at everything I buy in the shops, note what additives it contains, and check them off against a list of harmful ones?"

That is exactly what I would suggest you do. Please note that the research did not show that such additives were harmful to all. Only harmful to some. Thus it's up to the consumer.

BTW, I would sort of assume that you do look at what you buy already. You know, be a bit of a shock if you came home with a chicken dinner and found you'd actually bought bog roll.

Posted by: Philip Hunt | Sep 9, 2007 4:06:04 PM

I suspect we will see a call for warning labels on food containing these additives very soon, from the people who want all the other labels (salt, fat, etc).

Then the packaging will grow so large - to display all the information - that the 'no unneccessary packaging' folks will be up in arms.

Still, it keeps campaigners happy ;)

Posted by: JuliaM | Sep 9, 2007 5:22:03 PM

Phillip Hunt: ¨You think I should have to carefully look at everything I buy in the shops, note what additives it contains, and check them off against a list of harmful ones?¨

You are going to put these things in your mouth and on your skin? If you can´t be bothered to check the safety of the substance you plan to digest then I don´t think the other commentator Kit, is the idiot.

By the way, what exactly, is wrong with being informed about your environment?

Posted by: APL | Sep 9, 2007 6:24:55 PM

A little online research finds that over 3,000 additives can be found in the food we buy. In a press report of nearly two years ago:

"New research on common food additives, including the controversial sweetener aspartame and food colourings, suggests they may INTERACT [emphasis added] to interfere with the development of the nervous system.

"Researchers at the University of Liverpool examined the toxic effects on nerve cells in the laboratory of using a combination of four common food additives - aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the artificial colourings brilliant blue and quinoline yellow. The findings of their two-year study were published last week in the journal Toxicological Sciences."
http://society.guardian.co.uk/health/news/0,8363,1671820,00.html

I'm with Philip on this. You need a degree in physiology or pharmacology to keep tabs on all this.

Posted by: Bob B | Sep 9, 2007 8:42:41 PM

I don't think that it would be beyond the wit of man to develop a labelling scheme that allows people to pick out the additives that may be harmful. For instance, colour coding. Of course, that's unnecessary, because brands protect us at no cost to the consumer.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | Sep 9, 2007 9:38:53 PM

"Of course, that's unnecessary, because brands protect us at no cost to the consumer."

Really?

How come all those toys are being recalled then?

How come this?

- "The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today acknowledged the voluntary withdrawal from the market of Vioxx (chemical name rofecoxib), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) manufactured by Merck & Co. FDA today also issued a Public Health Advisory to inform patients of this action and to advise them to consult with a physician about alternative medications."
http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/news/2004/NEW01122.html

- "It is 40 years since the world woke up to the horror of thalidomide.It is 40 years since the world woke up to the horror of thalidomide."
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2031459.stm

In America, the FDA had famously refused to licence Thalidomide.

And there are many more cases of branded prescription drugs that have been withdrawn from markets after accumulating evidence showed adverse side effects.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_withdrawn_drugs

Just how are ordinary mortals without specialist degrees expected to keep up with all the technical literature on adverse side effects associated with food additives and prescription drugs? The proposition that we should all rely on branding seems to me both naive and profoundly dangerous.

Posted by: Bob B | Sep 9, 2007 10:17:41 PM

Bob, I'd suggest that the toys are being recalled precisely because the brands are trying to protect themselves and the public; if they weren't, they wouldn't recall a thing.

Posted by: Ian Deans | Sep 9, 2007 11:34:17 PM

But Ian, if the brands were really so concerned about their commercial reputation in world markets, they would have been sure not to use toxic paint on toys in the first place and would have checked to make sure before distribution and not have had to resort to (costly) recall afterwards. This was a case of manifest market failure.

As with pharmaceutical companies, there are producer costs to ensure no adverse side effects are associated with products and the pharmaceutical companies spend more and take more care doing so because they need to satisfy statutory licensing authorities in the EU, the US and most other mature democracies. Thank heavens. When drug licensing goes wrong - as it did with Thalidomide in Britain - the social consequences can be very painful if not fatal.

The fact is that most ordinary folk don't maintain the personal knowledge to checkout 3000+ food additives and umpteen prescription drugs which is, presumably, why mature democracies have evolved regulatory institutions to protect the public at large. Significantly, I don't know of any mainstream political party which is proposing to unwind the provision for protective statutory regulation for food additives and pharmaceuticals.

Posted by: Bob B | Sep 10, 2007 12:21:11 AM

I'm not in favour of an outright ban on such additives, but other comments make valid points about the difficulties in identifying the contents of products. When I was a child I remember that food packaging would list additives by their E numbers. Then, after the last time that E numbers were big in the news about their apparent side-effects in some children, the numbers suddenly disappeared from ingredients lists, to be replaced by the full names of the ingredients. This makes it much harder for non-specialists to recognize the presence of additives.

I do believe that it should be up to the individual to check packaging, but there should be some standard way of referring to ingredients to make this easier.

Posted by: Cleast | Sep 10, 2007 4:45:22 AM

"Phillip Hunt: ¨You think I should have to carefully look at everything I buy in the shops, note what additives it contains, and check them off against a list of harmful ones?¨"

I'm afraid its worse than that. I think the general libertarian line is there should be no consumer product legislation, and thus whether or not the ingredients are shown on the packet at all is up to the manufacturer. This wouldn't necessarily be a disaster - good brands and the supermarkets would presumably insist on it if the customers wished, although as Tim noted in his post on Amazon what the vast majority of consumers want doesn't always chime with individual preferences. I think, taking all that into account, it's easier to have laws about these things for everyone concerned.

Posted by: Matthew | Sep 10, 2007 8:28:04 AM

The case for regulatory oversight of food additives and prescription pharmaceuticals is firmly based on two considerations: massive information asymmetries in the relevant markets and prudential checks-and-balances. It is not necessary to invoke some simplistic and Orwellian notion of public-sector good (bad), private-sector bad (good).

The fact is that Thalidomide was approved for prescription by the relevant regulatory authorities in Britain but not America.

Posted by: Bob B | Sep 10, 2007 8:59:31 AM