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Dye Another Day
Artificial food colorings are receiving intense scrutiny abroad but have yet to be banned in the U.S.
food dye challenged by legislation in U.S.

Recent evidence that artificial food colorings might be linked to hyperactivity in children is prompting efforts to ban the substances in parts of Europe, though similar initiatives haven’t fared as well in the U.S.

In late February, Maryland killed a bill that would require food manufacturers to add a warning label to foods containing certain coloring agents and phase out the use of the substances by January 2011. Legislators also killed a companion bill banning the use of the agents in foods prepared for Maryland schools.

“Both bills received a chilly reception in committee,” says Melvin Thompson, director of government affairs with the Columbia-based Restaurant Association of Maryland. “They never even made it to a full Senate vote.”

Restaurant chains generally opposed the two bills, expressing concern that they could set a precedent for a patchwork of regulations similar to those targeting trans fats. Other experts questioned the link between colorings and behavioral problems in children.

The issue was originally raised as a result of research performed in the 1970s. A 2007 study by Britain’s University of Southampton rekindled interest in the topic, having concluded that certain colorings exacerbate hyperactive behavior in children up to the age of 13 or 14.

The study prompted European legislators to require warning labels on foods containing certain synthetic colorings and to ban other colorings altogether, including Blue 1 and Green 3.

Nevertheless, the Southampton study isn’t without its detractors. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded the findings didn’t merit altering daily intakes of the colorings.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn’t buying the study, either, concluding that while removing color additives from the diets of hyperactive children can improve behavior somewhat, there is “no scientific evidence to support the claim the additives or colorings cause hyperactivity.”

That might leave the Maryland initiative in limbo since the state legislature’s Senate Finance Committee indicated the issue of colorings was a federal matter.

Whether a perceived lack of federal oversight will prompt action from other jurisdictions remains to be seen, though Maureen Ryan, spokeswoman with the Washington, D.C.–based National Restaurant Association, says she is unaware of any similar initiatives on the books.

It is only a matter of time before additional states and jurisdictions seek to regulate use of the colorings, “once consumers begin to realize there is a problem with them.”

Michael Jacobson, executive vice president with the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), believes it is only a matter of time before additional states and jurisdictions seek to regulate use of the colorings, “once consumers begin to realize there is a problem with them.”

Meanwhile, the CSPI has filed a petition with the FDA seeking a review of the issue. Available research might not amount to an open-and-shut case, Jacobson says, “but the preponderance of evidence certainly leans in that direction.”

Prior to the Maryland decision, Sen. Norman Stone Jr., (D-Baltimore County), who introduced the two bills, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the initiatives failed.

Which, he added, wasn’t to say he wouldn’t be back.