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FSA chief confesses to additives cock-up

By Rod Addy , 17-Sep-2007

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has admitted it got it wrong over its public handling of the media storm surrounding the publication of its study linking additives with hyperactivity in children.

Speaking about risk management at the 2nd Annual Cambridge Conference on Regulation, Inspection and Improvement last week, FSA chief executive Deirdre Hutton said: “We could have talked more about how we are pushing the food industry to give parents more information sooner to help them make choices. And we weren’t clear enough about why an immediate ban wasn’t the answer - actually because there is no overriding public safety risk. We are, though, urging the European authorities, where responsibility for a decision rests, to look at our new evidence as a matter of urgency.

“As a result, perceptions were not that we acted proportionately, but that we were not being sufficiently active in managing the risk.”

Hutton said it was important to recognise that people differed in their attitudes to different risks. For some, the study’s findings were “the long-awaited trigger for a ban on all artificial additives”. For others, “it should be up to the parents what their children eat”

She said the FSA’s scientific approach to the issue had been too simplistic. “For us, the appropriate response was defined by the science, which shows a clear but modest association - not cause and effect - between two mixtures of a specific set of additives and an increase in hyperactive behaviour in some, but not all, children.

“Hence the risk management decision to target advice at parents of children showing signs of hyperactivity as they might see benefits in cutting out foods containing these artificial colours.

“But people’s actions are seldom defined only by the science. That has to be taken into account so that risk management actively helps people to make the choices that feel right for them.”

Hutton's comments preceded calls from pressure group Organic Trade Group (OTG) for an outright ban on potentially dangerous food and drink additives. The group's members include Waitrose and Yeo Valley, the largest organic food brand.

The OTG has written to Hutton, criticising the FSA for failing to consult it over guidance for parents on the side effects of E-numbers. It also said it was not making full information available to parents regarding the latest research on the issue.