Despite the vote in Parliament, the French Minister of Economy does not intend to sign a decree, in the immediate future, titanium dioxide. However, this food additive has been suspected by NGOs for years to be carcinogenic to humans.
They were waiting, they were hoping, but finally Bruno Le Maire decided that the use of a controversial food additive, suspected of being carcinogenic, would not be banned to the food industry. The French Minister of Economy announced Tuesday, January 8, that he would not sign immediately the decree implementing a measure of the Food Act of November 2018 that suspends the use of titanium dioxide or E171, despite repeated calls to this effect from several associations for months or even years. He considers that, in the present state of knowledge, there is no evidence of "serious and immediate danger" to human health.
This additive, also used as a dye, is very common in some desserts or prepared meals sold in supermarkets, but is also found in cosmetics, toothpastes or industrial paints.
Since 2016, associations like Agir pour l'environnement ensure that we should do better. The reason: titanium dioxide is composed of nanoparticles that, once in the body, can lodge in sensitive organs such as the liver, lungs or the colon. They accumulate there at the risk of causing health problems.
Which ? This is where the business gets tough. For NGOs, which published an open letter to the government in Le Monde in December 2018 to call for a ban on this food additive, scientific results indicate that titanium dioxide can cause cancer. The boss of Bercy ensures, meanwhile, that there is no consensus.
It's all about interpretation. "There have been more than 350 scientific publications since 2000 on titanium dioxide, without reaching definitive conclusions," said Harald Krug, a toxicologist at the University of Bern, interviewed by the German media.
In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified this food additive in the category of "possible carcinogens for humans". In France, a 2017 INRA study concluded that in rats, exposure to titanium dioxide at "acceptable levels" resulted in an increased risk of inflammation and could also facilitate the occurrence of precancerous lesions. The authors of this research, which raised concerns up to Brussels, however, said that their conclusions could not be transposed to humans.
In parallel with this work, the National Agency for Food Safety, Environment and Labor (ANSES) has submitted to the European Commission the case of E171. In June 2017, the European Chemicals Agency concluded, in turn, that this product could "be suspected of causing cancer".
Bercy relies on the industrialists
But this European body specified that this statement was only valid if the titanium dioxide was inhaled. In other words, Brussels refuses, for lack of sufficient scientific evidence, to mention the cases of food doped with E171. In addition, the subtlety of the European jargon, the agency does not classify these nanoparticles in the category of products "presumed carcinogenic".
It is in these nuances that Bruno Le Maire is engulfed to affirm that it was urgent to wait to suspend the use of the food additive lack of consensus. He said that "in doubt, it is up to industrialists to abstain".
A way to kick in touch criticized by the signatories of the call in Le Monde. "No: in case of doubt, for health security, it is his duty, as Minister of State, to act without delay in order to protect these fellow citizens and thus to sign this decree of suspension." answered François Veillerette, director of Générations Futures, in a statement.
Above all, for these associations, the refusal to sign the application decree is even more difficult to understand that the E171 has no nutritional virtue. Its only reason for being, according to scientists, is to increase the whiteness of certain foods or to play on dyes. On the other hand, it has an obvious economic value: every year, there are about 6.5 million tons of titanium dioxide that are produced and sold, especially to the food industry, in the world.