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UPDATED: April 18, 2011 NO. 16 APRIL 21, 2011
Additives for the Axe

On May 1, China will begin to ban the production and use of two food additives commonly used to "bleach" flour, benzoyl peroxide and calcium peroxide. The decision was made after 10 years of wrangling between the policy makers, manufacturers, scientists and consumers.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement it was applying the ban in response to consumers' concerns about chemical substances in food, and technical improvements that had made the two additives unnecessary in flour processing. Minister of Health Chen Zhu has also said China would remove from the "allowable" list food additives deemed unnecessary.

There are now about 2,300 food additives in 23 categories in use in China. A Chinese adult allegedly takes in dozens of kinds of food additives a day. Nutrition and food safety experts have always said food additives certified by the regulator are not necessarily harmful when their use is in accordance with the national standards. But less than 300 food additives have applicable standards in China—and excessive use of food additives is common in the food industry.

The additives indulgence has given rise to a number of food safety scandals involving illegal substances such as cancer-causing red Sudan dyes, kidney stone-inducing melamine, and toxic ractopamine and clenbuterol in pig feed.

China's Food Safety Law, which became effective on June 1, 2009, established a licensing system for the production of food additives. Last June, the more specific Provisions for the Regulation of Food Additives Production came into force, specifying rules for a wide range of issues such as mandatory risk assessment and quantity use guidelines.

The statutes are important, but they are not by themselves enough to eliminate problems involving food additives. Considering the huge economic benefits in the production and use of food additives, their risk assessments and approval procedures must be transparent and allow more public participation. More importantly, there should be even "over-cautious" regulatory efforts made in the field of all unnecessary food additives, in case of unknown but possibly existing risks.

The decision of the Ministry of Health to outlaw these types of flour bleach can serve as a precedent for future handling of food additives. But the decision-making process should be as short as possible, for the sake of consumers' safety and the food industry's credibility.

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