An E number used to make commercial sausages and burgers pink may cause cancer. Scientific studies suggest Red 2G, or E128, causes tumours in rats and mice and might have the same effect on people.
After reviewing the experiments, the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) said it could set no safe limit for the additive.
The European Commission is expected to ban its use within a fortnight, but products containing the additive on the shelves are not likely to be withdrawn.
Efsa has been reviewing the safety of colourings, many of which were approved for use 30 years ago. In a statement yesterday, the agency said its scientific panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids and materials had reviewed several evaluations of Red 2G since 1999. It found the E number, one of a band of controversial "azo-dye" colourings, converted in the body into a substance called aniline.
"Based on animal studies the panel concluded that aniline should be considered as a carcinogen," Efsa said, adding that it was not possible to state that the cancer had developed because of the genetic structure of the animal cells.
"It is therefore not possible to determine a level of intake for aniline which may be regarded as safe for humans," it added. "The panel therefore decided that Red 2G should be regarded as being of safety concern."
The European Commission is "reflecting" on the assessment and is expected to act at a meeting with member states on 20 July. A spokesman said Red G was used in Britain and Ireland but was not used in Scandinavia.
Yesterday it was found that several British companies selling sausages and burgers with Red 2G on the internet. Many supermarket products are unlikely to contain it, however, because many chains have been removing E numbers amid public concern at the effect of additives.
Ian Tokelove, of the pressure group the Food Commission, said there had been concerns about Red 2G going back decades and it was suspected of being a carcinogen in the 1980s. "Our general view is that additives are totally unnecessary," he added. "We don't need them in our food. They're there to disguise the quality of the food and in this case to make meat products look fresher and meatier than they are."
Red 2G is permitted for use in breakfast sausages with a minimum cereal content of 6 per cent and in burgers with 4 per cent of vegetables or cereals. It gives meat a reddish-pink appearance that turns brown on contact with heat.
Source : Belfast Telegraph