Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Food products recalled in cancer scare

HEALTH CRISIS The discovery of an illegal, potentially cancer-causing dye in a bottle of Worcester sauce led to the removal of hundreds of other food products

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

More than 350 food products were swept off British supermarket shelves on Friday in the biggest food safety scare since the BSE (mad-cow disease) crisis.

Fresh and canned foods, ready meals and cooking sauces were removed from sale on the orders of government food watchdogs after the chance discovery in Italy of an illegal, potentially cancer-causing dye ingredient in a bottle of Crosse & Blackwell Worcester sauce.

All the foods affected came from one supplier, Premier Foods, which said it had been advised by the UK Food Standards Agency that the levels of the dye Sudan 1 that had been detected "present no immediate risk to health."

The alert relates to 357 products with Worcester sauce flavoring, and the figure may rise. It follows 18 months of more low-level warnings involving 200 products -- including pickles, cooking oils and sauces -- to consumers, retailers, manufacturers and importers over the inclusion of the dye, which is banned in Europe.

But it is used in some very long-life foods and in many cases is thought to involve batches imported before a toughening of checks in July last year.

The scale of the recall is likely to send shockwaves through the food industry. Consumers are demanding ever greater information about the food they eat and the uncomfortable truth is that the dye seems to have been present often at undetectable levels.

The food agency's chief executive, Jon Bell, on Friday night sought to reassure the public.

"Sudan 1 could contribute to an increased risk of cancer. However, at the levels present, the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any more. There is no risk to immediate health," he said.

"The agency is working with the industry to ensure that any remaining affected products are speedily removed. Because of the widespread use of this Worcestershire sauce to flavor other foods, we may find further affected products," Bell said.

Toxicology expert John Henry, of St Mary's Hospital, London, said Sudan 1 "is very easy, cheap to manufacture. It has been present in shoes, used to color petrol, chemicals, shoe polishes, things like that. It is perfectly safe in these situations but to eat it is not an ideal thing."

"There is no evidence it has caused disease in humans ever. This is a precautionary measure. Because it causes cancer in some studies of animals, it is something you don't want in your food. It is not an essential food product," he said.

Tony Dayan, a former professor at St Bartholomew's hospital, London, said: "The evidence all points to the fact it ought not to be in humans generally. I am not suggesting people should be extremely worried because they may have eaten what may or may not have been a contaminated product. The dose would have been extremely small but from a public health point of view or community view at large, you don't want that potentially very dangerous material in an ordinary item of the diet."

Shares in Premier on the London stock exchange fell ?0.0775 on Friday to ?2.80.

"It is truly an industry problem, affecting all the major supermarkets," said Richard Matthews, product liability expert at law firm Eversheds.

"Premier and its ingredient suppliers will be concerned about their reputation ... not to mention the very large claims that may flow up the supply chain ... There will also be queries as to why the quality control procedures did not detect the presence of Sudan 1," he said.

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