The European Parliament this week voted through four regulations relating to food ingredients - on authorisation procedure, additives, enzymes and flavourings - with notable amendments aimed at providing a heightened level of consumer protection across the bloc.
The European Commission adopted proposals for a common authorisation procedure on food additives, enzymes, and flavourings in July last year, with the intention of harmonising rules across the bloc and affording consumers the same level of protection no matter which member state they reside in. Presently there are around 12 different regulations governing the additives area, some of which are scientifically outmoded.
The amendments, agreed at a meeting of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, are stronger than the original proposal. In the case of the authorisation procedure, MEPs want more transparency on decisions and the reasons behind them.
They also say there is a need to protect companies who have to reveal trade secrets in order to gain approval, granting them scientific data protection for five years. This point that is likely to be welcomed by the food industry.
The MEPS also want the regulation on food additives (such as sweeteners, colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, gelling agents and packaging gases) to go beyond consideration of health effects for humans. Environmental aspect should also be taken into account, they say, since chemicals consumed by humans do not remain in their bodies but are passed out into the environment.
"Even if a substance foes not entail any health risk to the person consuming the products which contains the substance, there may be negative effects on the environment and public health at subsequent stages," said the explanatory statement.
The MEPs believe these potential effects should be taken into consideration when the authorisation decision is made.
They drew attention to the gap in knowledge of potential risks associated with nanotechnology, saying that the permitted limits for an additive in nanoparticle form should not be the same as when it is in traditional form.
Heightened protection of the interests of consumers with food intolerances, and flagging up of additives whose production has involved genetically-modified organisms were also incorporated into the amendment.
As to the sectoral regulations on flavourings and enzymes, MEPs believe these should be used only if there is a benefit to consumers, GMO production should be noted on labels, and the precautionary principle should apply.
They said flavourings should only be used if there is a technological need; and enzymes if they do not mislead as to the freshness or naturalness of the product.
There has been a sway towards use of natural ingredients in place of synthetic variants in recent times, as manufacturers and retailers seek to cater to consumer concerns.
But Parliament agreed that 95 per cent of a flavouring element must be of natural origin for it to be deemed 'natural' (as opposed to 90 per cent suggested by the Commission); and the effects on vulnerable groups like children should be taken into account.
The favourable vote follows the first reading in Parliament. The next step is a Council reading, expected to take place in the autumn.
If the Council is not in agreement with all the Parliament's amendments the package will revert to the Parliament for a second reading.
A spokesperson for the Parliament told FoodNavigator.com that agreement is not likely to be reached until the beginning of next year.
EU health commissioner Markus Kyprianou stressed the importance of the food ingredients package, saying it "combines most of the EU's priorities" - that is, food safety and consumer protection innovation and competitiveness in the EU food sector, plus simpler and better regulation.
In parallel with the regulation making its may through the European process, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is presently reassessing all food additives previously authorised for use in the EU, since in some cases new science has emerged since authorisation was granted.
This indicates that the current scenario is regarded as requiring rather more urgent action than the regulation, which may take two or three years to come into effect, can provide.
EFSA is starting its reassessment with colours, since many of these were initially authorised 20 or 30 years ago. This week EFSA publicised its first opinion on the safety of a food colour, Red 2G, and the conclusion was not good.
Based on animal studies published since 1999, it says Red 2G should be regarded as a carcinogen. A meeting has been planned for July 20 to discuss the legality of the ingredient in the EU going forward.