For Immediate
August 24, 1998


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FDA Urged to Improve Labeling of or Ban Carmine Food Coloring

Insect-derived Coloring Causes Severe Allergic Reactions

Food colorings that cause severe allergic reactions should be disclosed clearly on labels or possibly banned, a national health-advocacy group is telling the Food and Drug Administration.

The colorings come in two forms, cochineal extract or carmine. Both are derived from female cochineal beetles, which are raised in Peru, the Canary Islands, and elsewhere. They provide a pink, red, or purple color to foods ranging from ice cream and yogurt to fruit drinks and the aperitif Campari, as well as to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

In the past several years, doctors in Michigan, Switzerland, and France have proven that the colorings can cause allergic reactions, including sneezing, asthma, and anaphylactic shock. The prevalence of allergic reactions is not known.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, today petitioned the FDA to either revoke approval of the colorings or require that they be clearly labeled by name. Currently, they may be declared on labels as "artificial color" or "color added."

CSPI is well known for its criticisms of olestra, saccharin, sodium nitrite, and several other controversial food additives.

"A coloring that can cause anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals should be required to be listed specifically on labels," said Dr. James Baldwin, clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of CSPI, said, "No one should have to experience a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction just because they ate an artificially colored food. Food manufacturers should switch to other colorings."

Jacobson added, "Americans shouldn’t have to repeat their experience with sulfite preservatives, which also caused anaphylactic reactions. Fifteen years ago, consumers died while the FDA delayed acting on CSPI’s petition to ban dangerous uses of sulfites." The FDA ultimately banned the most dangerous uses of sulfites and set strict limits on other uses.

Many vegetarians, Jews, and others who observe dietary restrictions have been surprised to discover that a coloring derived from insects is used in food. To protect those consumers, CSPI urged the FDA, if it didn’t ban carmine and cochineal extract, to require that labels indicate that the colorings are derived from insects. CSPI recommended that ingredient lists declare: "Artificial color (carmine/cochineal extract (insect-based))."

CSPI urged allergists who have had patients allergic to carmine or cochineal extract to call its Carmine Allergy Clearinghouse at 1-888-653-7872.

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