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Commission requests urgent safety review of aspartame from EFSA

By Jess Halliday , 26-May-2011
Last updated on 26-May-2011 at 12:29 GMT

The European Commission has asked EFSA to conduct a full re-evaluation of the safety of aspartame by July 2012, due to MEPs’ concerns and EFSA’s decision to look more closely at two recent studies on carcinogenicity and pregnancy effects.

EFSA spokesperson Lucia de Luca told FoodNavigator.com that the agency has received a mandate for a complete re-evaluation of aspartame, and that the scientists are “looking at it and verifying what the risk manager is looking for”.

While EFSA has not yet completed the administrative work to accept the request, a full review of aspartame was already planned for 2020; EFSA has been reviewing the safety of all food additives previously approved for use in the EU, and having made its way through colours and flavourings, sweeteners were the last category to be looked at.

A spokesperson for John Dalli, Commissioner for Health and Consumers, said there are several reasons for bringing forward the review with a 13-month deadline.

Firstly, he said “there have been concerns lately and questions from MEPs”. At the second reading of the proposed food information regulation last month MEPs voted for a mandatory warning label on products about aspartame consumption in pregnancy.

In addition, he said EFSA said earlier this year that two recent studies on aspartame, a mouse study on carcinogenicity and an epidemiological study in sweeteners and pre-term delivery, did not give reason to reconsider safety of aspartame and over approved sweeteners – but subsequently decided to do an in-depth study.

EFSA’s scientific opinion on interpretation of the results of the carcinogenicity study, as well as suggested implications of methanol reported in both studies, is due by the end of this year.

Commenting on bringing forward the full re-evaluation, de Luca said: “It is fine if we have to do it before."

Will MEPs heed opinion?

There is no guarantee that the MEPs’ call for warning labels on aspartame will be hushed until the findings of the full re-evaluation are published next year, however.

Dalli’s spokesperson said: “EU decisions have to be based on science.”

There is a precedent of MEPs pressing ahead with actions before EFSA’s opinion is available, however. In 2008 they succeeded in a last minute addition to the FIAP additives package requiring a warning label on products containing the so-called Southampton colours due to hyperactivity concerns. In EFSA’s opinion the Southampton study did not give scientific grounds for linking the colours to hyperactivity in children.

The spokesperson said that in this case “there was more nuance in some phrases” which may indicate the colours could be problematic for some consumers.

There has already been a clash between MEPs and EFSA over aspartame. In March the agency expressed disappointment over the Parliament’s reporting of a hearing over aspartame in which it participated.

It said in a statement: “Unfortunately, when reporting the outcomes of this meeting, the organisers of the hearing continue to repeat errors and misinformation. EFSA reaffirms that any possible risks from aspartame have been considered by scientific bodies worldwide and the current Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) ensures consumers are protected.”

A spokesperson for aspartame producer Ajinomoto declined to comment on the mandate for earlier re-evaluation of the sweetener until EFSA has communicated its acceptance.

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