Food is a highly emotive issue. As a result, food scares make great headlines. It has been said that scary rumours can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. In the past couple of weeks, the great scare has been the appearance of the banned dye, Para Red, in food products. Scaremongers call the dye a carcinogen, but it is unlikely to do harm in the tiny amounts ingested by humans.
Rarely has there been a clearer illustration of the fact that each new food scare seems to follow a pattern similar to the ones before. The previous world-shaking food scare, just weeks earlier (and still ongoing), involved another harmless but banned red dye in the food supply: Sudan 1.
The Economist insightfully described the Sudan 1 scare as “the biggest food scare since the last one”. More than 400 products containing Sudan 1 have been recalled because of the purported “human cancer risk” they pose. Sudan 1 is approved for use in polishes, waxes and solvents, but not in foods.
The alleged problem began when a very large batch of chilli powder was somehow contaminated with Sudan 1 and then used widely in the preparation of Worcestershire sauce, which, in turn, was used in as many as 600 prepared food products - everything from shepherd’s pie to salad dressing.
The scare and recall was not limited to Great Britain. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a health hazard alert for various chilli sauces and, as this article is being written, the Sudan scare is heating up in South Korea and China.
Indeed, the South Korean FDA has begun inspecting outlets of fast food restaurants after the Chinese operation of Kentucky Fried Chicken admitted it had discovered traces of Sudan 1 in its cuisine. US manufacturer Heinz reported traces of the dye in its Chinese products. The threat of a massive, region-wide recall is becoming increasingly possible.
What is at the heart of this spicy kerfuffle? In high doses, Sudan 1 and its numerical cousins - Sudan 2, 3 and 4 - cause cancer in laboratory rodents. Of course, as critics have pointed out, you would have to consume 800 litres of Worcestershire sauce daily for two years to get the amounts the rodents consumed, given that the amount of Sudan 1 in any affected product is only measurable in micrograms, or millionths of a gram.
If, however, you believe that mice and
men are the same, then you see reason for alarm, despite the barely measurable levels.
What is of great interest is that the British government, specifically the Food Standards Agency, seems to have orchestrated this scare in a very self-serving, manipulative manner. Instead of informing consumers that the risk was purely hypothetical, the FSA hyped it up, recommending that consumers “avoid eating any food known to be contaminated”.
Critics maintain that the agency’s zeal and excessively precautionary warnings represent a PR move to convince consumers that their government food watchdog agency is indeed doing its job.
In Canada, the Food Inspection Agency was equally alarmist, warning consumers “not to consume certain food products which contain a non-permitted colour, Sudan 1, considered to be carcinogenic”. The fact is, myriad chemicals, natural and synthetic, cause cancer when administered to rodents at high doses, including benzoapyrene in tea, and furan in scones.
The overwhelming majority of the European media coverage (the US has thus far been spared this particular food scare) referred to the Sudan dyes as causing cancer - and that was enough to alarm people in dozens of countries. Such a designation is grossly misleading. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that people consuming foods with trace levels of this dye are at any increased risk of cancer.
Who can explain why £100m worth of safe and wholesome food was discarded to avoid a cancer risk that was never there?