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February 27, 2005

Sudan 1 Recall: Waste of Money.

A nice piece in the Telegraph today showing that the recall of all products contaminated with Sudan 1 will kill people:

It comes as some surprise, therefore, to learn that the Sudan 1 scare may turn out to be entirely bogus. The chemical at the centre of the crisis has never actually been proved to be dangerous to human beings. Not only has it never been proved to be cancer-causing, but there is no evidence that, when ingested as a result of being added to Worcester sauce, it will do any harm at all.

Sudan 1 is one of the dyes invented by German chemists during the late 19th century. It has a molecular structure that is similar to some compounds which have been shown to cause cancer, or at least which have been statistically linked to that group of diseases. Because of that similarity, food safety experts and other chemists have raised the theoretical possibility that, once Sudan 1 is in the body, it could break down in a way that would mean it becomes indistinguishable from cancer-causing molecules. If that happens, the theory predicts that Sudan 1 would end up causing cancer itself.

That's the theory. But is there any concrete evidence that Sudan 1 actually does cause cancer? At the moment, the answer is a resounding "No". Thirty years ago, experiments on mice and rats found that Sudan 1 could trigger bladder and liver tumours, but only if the chemical was injected directly into the animal. Tests that involved animals eating substances containing Sudan 1 – which is, after all, what human beings do – rather than having those substances introduced into their bodies via a hypodermic needle, proved to be entirely negative. Nothing happened to the animals. There were no tumours, no cancers: as far as the observers could tell, there was nothing at all wrong with them.

The scientists were not satisfied with this result, however. They wanted to check whether there was evidence that Sudan 1 could nevertheless cause harm if it were ingested over a prolonged period. So they fed material laced with Sudan 1 to rats and other rodents for months on end. Those tests found some evidence that Sudan 1 could cause kidney and liver damage, along with an increased risk of leukaemia and lymphoma. The correlation was weak, but it seems to be there.

The only problem is, the dose of Sudan 1 that it takes to produce those consequences is colossal. To ingest Sudan 1 in the amounts that were shown to cause harm in rats, a human would have to consume Crosse and Blackwell's Worcester sauce at the rate of three tons every day for two years.

So that is showing that Sudan 1, as found in Crosse and Blackwell’s Worcester Sauce, will have no effect whatsoever on human health. How do I make the leap from there to saying that the recall will kill people? Premier Foods is spending some 100 million on the product recall that’s how. Remember that money we spend on one thing cannot then be spent on something else...if we spend 100 million on this recall at no benefit whatsoever then that’s 100 million that cannot be spent on something that would be of benefit. It doesn’t really matter what those resources would have been spent on if it were not for the recall...anything would be better than pissing it away in this manner.

This is the basic problem that we have in so many of our systems and decisions now. REACH Directive, the precautionary principle, the Farm to Fork initiative....all are forgetting that there is inevitably some risk attatched to the very process of being alive, and that we need to work through the risks in order, biggest risks first, in order to spend the resources we have (inevitably limited) most effectively.

In the end, in this particular case, more good would have been done if 99,999,950 pound coins had been buried at the bottom of a mine shaft and a  50 squid donation sent to feed a starving African child. We have to get a handle on the system folks, we’ve got to stop pissing away the wealth.

February 27, 2005 in Food and Drink | Permalink


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For me, the big problem here is that while it seems reasonable that Sudan 1 is banned, the sensible reaction to finding that one batch of some product contained it, but that future products would not contain it, would be to do nothing. No-one is going to eat remotely enough of the stuff, from this one-off, for there to be any problem. It's just a complete miscalculation of the risks involved, as you rightly say.

However, I wouldn't go as far as to blame the entire idea of the precautionary principle: here for example, you seem to be saying that research *has* been done on Sudan 1, and yet it's conclusions were ignored. To me the precautionary principle means that we shouldn't run head-long into things without any idea of what they will do (eg feeding dead cows to cows).


Posted by: Matt Daws | Feb 27, 2005 1:44:21 PM