Food and diet

Sausage colouring raises cancer concern

A food additive used in sausages and hamburgers could trigger cancer, news sources reported.The additive (E128, also known as Red 2G) is used to change raw meat from the natural brown colour it turns when exposed to air, to a more appealing red colour.

The reports, in newspapers and on the BBC, originated from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which issued a press release giving its opinion that the additive may not be safe for human consumption. Meat industry experts suggested in The Times on July 10 2007 that the dye “was mainly used for meat products sold at the cheaper end of the market and especially where there was less than 100 per cent meat content”. Many newspapers reported that Red 2G is banned in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and several northern European countries. 

Red 2G has been allowed for use in Europe in some breakfast sausages with more than 6% cereal in them and burger meat containing more than 4% vegetable/cereal. As part of the European process of checking the safety of food additives, however, the EFSA is publishing a new opinion about Red 2G. The press release and excerpt of opinion released with it stated that the new recommendation was based on ”several existing evaluations of Red 2G… supplemented by several studies which have been published since 1999”. The press release said the findings were based on studies in rats and mice.

What the risk assessment says

The press release reported that some animal studies found that Red 2G was broken down into a chemical (aniline) that can cause cancer in mice. As aniline may have similar effects in humans, the EFSA has given a new opinion about its safety.

The risk assessment concluded: “Red 2G has been shown to convert largely in the body into a substance, called aniline. Based on animal studies the panel concluded that aniline should be considered as a carcinogen… based on a similar metabolism of aniline in animals and humans a carcinogenic risk for man cannot therefore be excluded.”

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

The evidence will be considered further by the UK Food Standards Agency, which will then publish its conclusions. The EFSA has changed its recommendation about Red 2G largely because it isn’t known whether it will have harmful effects on people. In mice Red 2G is broken down into aniline, a chemical that can cause cancer. Until more is known about how aniline causes cancer in mice and whether it has the same effects in humans, this seems an appropriately cautious recommendation.

No information is available on how widely Red 2G is used in the UK or whether its concentration in food even approaches the maximum level of 20mg/kg which has been permitted under EU food law. The news articles reported that the Food Standards Agency was investigating whether any products available in the UK contain this colouring and that representatives of food manufacturers (the Food and Drink Federation) say that it is "likely to be minimal".

Sir Muir Gray says…

There are so many reports on additives and colourants that it would be very complicated for an individual consumer to take action on every report. The system for appraising these chemicals is well designed. However, it seems sensible to take in as few additional chemicals as possible, whether they come from the environment or food and drink.

NHS Attribution