4-MEI: Strict limitations on caramel colourings in drinks

Protestors have written to the UK Department of Health (DH) demanding for strict limits on levels of 4-MEI, a chemical compound present in caramel colourings used in drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi and connected to cancer in mice.

4-MEI or 4-MI (4-methylimidazole) is a result of ammoniated caramel colouring production, and a spring media storm over its presence in American Cola products ended up with PepsiCo and Coca-Cola altering colourant manufacturing processes (through suppliers) to bring down levels in California.

The firms vowed to roll-out the change nationally, with Coke stressing benefits to be gained by streamline manufacturing processes but the company insisted there was no public health rationale for the change, and that it was simply keen to avoid a unjust labelling requirement.

Coke said that it was answering in regards to California State’s addition of 4-MEI to its controversial ‘Proposition 65’ list regulating known carcinogens. Enforced from January 7, this addition requires foods and beverages containing 4-MEI levels exceeding 29mcg (micrograms) to carry cancer warning levels.

Sarah Tuke, a spokesperson for the Coca-Cola UK Northwest Europe & Nordics, said: “The company has made the decision to ask its caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes to meet the requirements of California’s Proposition 65. All of our products are safe and in full compliance with all federal and state requirements, including Proposition 65”.

The ‘safe harbour’ level is a California States Non-Significant Risk Level (NSRL), representing the daily intake level of a chemical calculated to result in a cancer risk of one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed over a lifetime.

Tuke added: “While we believe that there is no public health risk that justifies any such change, we have asked our caramel suppliers to take this step so that our products will not be subjected to the requirement of a scientifically unfounded warning. It is important to note that while we have asked our caramel suppliers to modify their manufacturing processes, those modifications have not changed the taste of Coca-Cola”.

She also said that, in order to comply with Proposition 65, they will be beginning with California.

She continued: “We intend to expand the use of the reduced 4-MEI caramel globally as this will allow us to streamline and simplify our supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution systems. Our timeline for this effort is still being developed”.

However, The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its UK campaign partner The Children’s Food Campaig (CFC), 4-MEI levels found in Coke cans being sold in Britain are now 145mg.

According to CSPI figures, 4-MEI levels were as high as 267mg in Brazil while figures rose as high as 144mg in Washington DC, USA, and only a minimum 4mg in California.

Malcolm Clarke, a spokesperson for the CFC, said: “The CSPI asked us to get involved in its campaign, and we sent them examples of Coca-Cola sold in Britain for assessment”.

Tuke also added that, earlier this year, the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said: “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently looked at 4-methylimidazole and concluded it does not pose a health risk to humans. Based on available evidence, the presence of 4-methylimidazole in colouring agents is not a food safety concern”.

The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) insisted that 4-MEI has no health risks at levels in food and drinks and says the science surrounding its presence did not support a ban.

In March this year, the American Beverage Association (ABA) lashed out at California State for adding 4-MEI to Proposition 65 with no studies proving it caused cancer in humans.

Instead, this had done so on the basis of a mouse study where a person would have to drink almost 3,000 (2,900 exactly) cans of cola daily for 70 years to reach lowest mouse dose levels.

Richard Laming, the BSDA media director, said: “The 4-MEI levels found in food and drink products pose no health or safety risks. Outside the State of California, no regulatory agency around the world considers the exposure of the public to 4-MI as present in caramels as an issue”.

Clarke said: “Drinks such as Coca-Cola are ones that people drink in quite significant amounts of compared to other products 4-MEI is used in, dark beers, for instance.

“Soft drink consumption is so high, and people are encouraged to drink more, as a global trend, cup sizes, etc, seem to be getting bigger. California wasn’t banning 4-MEI, but wanted to give consumers full information via the health warning label when the chemical exceeds certain limits.

“That led Coca-Cola to reformulate their products in the US. If they can do it in one region – they should be able to do it throughout the world and here in the UK”.

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