The European Commission proposed that amendments to the Directive 95/2/EC, dealing with food additives other than colours and sweeteners, cut permitted levels of nitrates and nitrites in meat products, enforce a ban on parabens E216 and E217 and a ban on a jelly mini-cups containing certain food additives derived from seaweed and/or certain gums.
Food additives are substances added intentionally to foodstuffs to perform certain technological functions, for example to colour, to sweeten or to preserve.
"We continuously update our legislation to take into account the latest scientific knowledge and I believe that this type of review process is vital for consumer confidence," said David Byrne, EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, and soon to replaced by Markos Kyprianou when the Commission switches to a new team in November.
Consumer groups welcomed the proposal, saying Brussels had listened to their stakeholder concerns.
"We had voiced our concerns over parabens with the Commission and we are pleased it reacted quickly, putting parabens forward for a risk assessment at EFSA," said Beate Kettlitz, a food spokesperson at the European consumer organisation BEUC.
Parabens, E214 to 219, are antimicrobial agents used sparingly by food manufacturers as a preservative in meat products and potato snacks. But they are not as widely used by food manufacturers as other antimicrobial agents, possibly due to higher cost and flavour objections.
In September the European Food Safety Authority concluded that a group ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of 0-10 mg/kg body weight per day could now be established for methyl and ethyl parabens and their sodium salts, but not propyl paraben due to recent research that questioned its impact on sperm production in rats.
As a result the Commission proposed this week to ban paraben (E216) and its sodium salt (E217) from the market, but rules stay the same for the other parabens.
Brussels has tackled levels of the meat preservers nitrates and nitrites - an issue also raised by BEUC - in the proposal. Nitrates and nitrites are used in meat products, such as cured meats or sausages, to prevent them from going "off" during the production process and to avoid microbiological contamination by bacteria like C.botulinum..
Commission concerns that nitrites are transformed into nitrosamines in meat products led the Brussels-based body to propose to "reduce the permitted levels of nitrites and nitrates added to food while still maintaining the microbiological safety of food products". The aim of the Commission is to keep the level of nitrosamines as low as possible, it said.
Replacing a temporary ban already in place in 2003 that bans food makers from using the food additive E425 konjac, konjac gum or konjac glucomannan in jelly mini-cups. The Commission proposal seeks to make the ban permanent, stemming from fears that children could choke on the jelly mini-cups.
But Commission bans do not appear to have impacted the stable jelly confectionery market, suggesting that the jelly mini-cup market is only a fraction of overall jelly and gum sales.
In 2002, the total market for gum and jelly confectionery in the UK came in at about 88,231 tonnes, compared to 2003 figures of 88,250 tonnes. According to the UK's industry body, the Biscuit, Cake Chocolate, Confectionery Alliance (BCCCA), the estimated consumer value for this very stable, even static, market was £366 million (€540) in 2003.
The Food Standards Agency - the UK's food watchdog - told FoodNavigator.com recently that it had not received any reports of illness from the jelly mini-cup confectionery, although earlier this year, the FSA issued a withdrawal of all such products from the supermarket shelves.
Aside from the bans and lowering of levels, the amendment to Directive 95/2/EC also proposes the use of four new food additives - ethyl cellulose, erythritol, 4-hexyl resorcinol and soybean hemicellulose.
The proposal now passes to the Council and the European Parliament before being rubber-stamped through the co-decision procedure.