Over the years, California legislation and regulation has shaped everything from auto emission regulations, to lead ammunition usage, to the labeling of known carcinogens in household products. Now, state leaders are at it again, but this time, they’re looking at the food industry’s use of color additives.
It’s an issue that may cause food manufacturers to reconsider their use of synthetic colors not just in California, but nationwide.
Earlier this month, State Senator Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat, introduced California SB 504, a bill that would require warning labels on all food containing synthetic dyes, including those sold in restaurants. If passed, the law would be the first of its kind in any state.
The bill is scheduled to be heard during a Senate Health Committee hearing sometime in April and is backed by the Children’s Advocacy Institute and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has been advocating for similar measures for more than eight years.
If enacted, the bill could have far reaching implications for any brand operating or selling food products within California
Currently, the FDA declares color additives as “safe when used properly.” However, an estimated 38,600 children in California may be adversely affected by the dyes, according to information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Census. Research suggests there are possible links between these dyes and hyperactivity in children. The proposed label language accepted by the state would directly call out that connection.
Wieckowski said the proposed label would allow companies to make their products as they wish, but also give consumers ”important information about the product they are considering purchasing to help them make better-informed decisions.”
“A lot of people want to make sure their kids get absolutely the best, but not every parent has the knowledge base to know that just because it is approved by the FDA [doesn’t mean that ] it isn’t always good for Johnny or Matilda,” Wieckowski said. “We are trying to push the envelope to say, ‘Well, maybe this can have an effect on your kid.’”
Though the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Manufacturers Institute defer to the FDA’s assessment that the science linking synthetic colors to hyperactivity is inconclusive, many food manufacturers are already removing these additives.
Big CPG brand Nestle has committed to removing synthetic coloring from all of its chocolates and the Dunkin’ Brands Group (which includes Baskin Robbins) recently announced it is phasing out food dyes. Kerry, an ingredient company, launched a Velveeta-like clean label cheese solution earlier this year that offers the familiar appearance, aroma and taste of processed cheese products without the artificial ingredients and synthetic coloring.
However, others have made the switch somewhat less willingly. Kraft Heinz announced a gradual plan to nix synthetic colors from its macaroni and cheese in 2015, but soon after was sued for the continued false labeling of its cheese products as natural though they contained artificial coloring. While, the company has already removed artificial dyes from some of its other products, including Capri Sun juice drinks and Philadelphia Cream Cheese spreads, it still uses dyes in a majority of its other products. ConAgra Foods is also working to “remove or reduce” artificial coloring from its products by 2019, but as of now still has artificially colored products like Birthday Cake Oreos in its portfolio.
The bill represents mixed news for chemical manufacturing companies, many of whom are currently straddling the natural and synthetic ingredient worlds, but it’s not something they want to address. Numerous chemical and coloring companies declined or did not return Project NOSH’s requests for comment. Sensient Colors did, however, issue a statement to NOSH saying that the company “is committed to providing the food and beverage industry with the color solutions that meet the needs of manufacturers and their consumers” and that “increasingly these are colors derived from natural sources.”
The global natural food color market size is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2025, according to Research and Markets. Still, the need for investments into research and development, the high dependence of natural colors on raw materials like fruits and vegetables, and the substantial price fluctuations of those raw materials, is slowing the growth of the category. When converting from synthetic to natural colors, manufacturing costs can increase on average five to 30 percent, even though color is only a small part of the product.
Pernille Borre Arskog, Commercial Technical Manager at Chr. Hansen Inc. said that since there is no regulatory change so far forcing the conversion from synthetic to natural, the food manufacturers are under less pressure.
“As a natural consequence, many of the large manufacturers keep postponing the conversion to natural because it is more expensive for them to make the move,” he said. “It will increase the cost of manufacturing and, if they can push the actual conversion for a year or two without damaging their brand, then they can save a lot of money. [But] eventually the consumers will start questioning why the food manufacturers are not living up to their promise and the risk is that the brand value decreases.”
He added that there is both a financial and a brand development cost that could accompany the addition of warning labels.
“There is also a risk that it will send a wrong signal that synthetic colors are not safe to eat, which is not correct,” Arskog said. “All colors, synthetic and natural, have been through a thorough food safety evaluation and are considered safe to eat.”
Though consumer shopping trends support clean and transparent labels, Wieckowski said he expects to continue to see resistance from both food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers.
According to Sen. Wieckowski, companies have already voiced concerns to him regarding how they can make sure products labeled and designated for other states do not accidentally ship to the West Coast. Europe, which requires warning labels on food containing six synthetic colors, has enacted a similar labeling policy since 2008, and companies have all complied, many responding by removing the synthetic dyes altogether.
Other industry concerns are based in consumer expectation. Brands are attempting to balance increased consumer demands for more natural ingredients with the taste and appearance that they’ve come to expect.
“The snack market loves California. What would be Disneyland without a snack?” Wieckowski said. “What I think is going to happen is that the corporate board rooms will have to make the assessment on do [they] want to just go with the label and deal with that, or do [they] want to change what’s in their products — and the latter is what I hope will happen.”