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UPDATED: April 18, 2011 NO. 16 APRIL 21, 2011
Confidence for Consumers
Government tightens regulation on food additives in response to safety concerns after several food safety scandals were brought to light


When buying food these days, Chinese consumers become nervous at the mere mention of food additives. Their concern is understandable given a growing number of food safety scandals involving added chemical substances in recent years.

In November 2006, food safety regulators found seven companies in Hebei Province producing salted red-yolk eggs with cancer-causing red Sudan dyes to make their eggs look redder and fresher.

In 2008, melamine-tainted milk powder killed at least six infants and sickened nearly 300,000 others.

The latest case came in March, when national broadcaster CCTV exposed Jiyuan Shuanghui Food Co. Ltd., an affiliate of the country's largest meat processor Shuanghui Group, had purchased pigs fed with clenbuterol, a toxic chemical, for production of sausage.

"Caution is required, but extreme aversion is unnecessary," said Chen Junshi, Director of the Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Chen said all chemical substances involved in the food safety scandals were industrial additives, which were not allowed in food. "When properly used, certified food additives will not affect food safety," he explained.

Devil or angel?

In China, a food additive is defined as any synthetic or natural substance used to improve the quality, color, fragrance and flavor of food, and to add to the food or put together with the food for processing technology requirements.

"Food additive is a pillar of the modern food processing. Without food additives, there would be no food industry," said Chen.

It's unrealistic to expect to live without food additives, he said, adding, without food additives, many kinds of food, such as fruit-flavored drinks and biscuits, wouldn't exist and preservation of food would become difficult.

"Food additives are not necessarily harmful. Sometimes additives are needed in order to provide consumers with products of the best quality," said Fan Zhihong, a professor at the School of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering of China Agricultural University.

She said some additives were beneficial to people's health, such as vitamins, calcium and lycopene.

"I have not heard of any major food safety emergency caused by properly used food additives," said Chen. "Problems are always caused by the misuse or overuse of food additives, or by the addition of non-food chemical substances."

It's reported 2,300 food additives in 23 categories are being used in China, and the combined output value of food additives manufacturers across the country has surpassed 300 billion yuan ($43.92 billion).

For a new food additive to be approved in China, there must be four levels of testing, including animal toxicology, efficiency, effects and genetic toxicology, said Huo Junsheng, a researcher with CDC's Institute for Nutrition and Food Safety.

"Each permitted food additive has to pass a safety assessment so it will not be harmful to human health when used under national standards. People don't need to panic," Huo said.

Many experts have also expressed their worries.

"A common problem today is the misuse or overuse of food additives," said He Jiguo, another professor at the School of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering of the China Agricultural University. "Some are misused deliberately to make profit, while others are misused out of negligence."

Long-term over-consumption of some food additives, such as coloring agents, would harm people's health, warned Xiao Guisen, Vice President of the Beijing New Spicy Way Group, who has 30 years of experience in catering. He said artificial food additives were a new concern because of their more frequent use.

"At present, research in side effects of artificial food additives still lags far behind the development of the food industry. So risks of many artificial additives are not yet clearly known," Xiao said.

Meanwhile, Yu Jianping, a manager of Shanghai Yiyuan Co., a leading food additives developer, said manufacturers' keen pursuit of properties that nature simply cannot supply had boosted the use of food additives.

"For example, manufacturers want the food to keep longer, to taste better, and the ingredients to combine together well, all at the same time. Without massive use of additives, it is impossible," Yu said.

Another major reason for the large number of food additives in use, Yu said, was manufacturers hoped to lower costs and reduce the use of expensive high-quality materials, so they added chemical substances, such as preservatives, to extend the food's shelf life.

In addition, raw materials supply is a problem. Sometimes there are too many additives in finished products, although the producer follows regulations but is not aware of the fact additives are already in raw materials.

"For example, antiseptics must be used when producing canned foods. But some raw materials, such as soy sauce, may already contain antiseptics. Adding more may be overuse," Yu said.

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