The Sunday Times purchased certain food items such as curry powders, chilli powders and achaars at random in a variety of popular supermarket chains and had them tested at the Department of Health Forensic Chemistry Laboratory in Cape Town.
Thirteen of the foods tested positive for a banned dye or dyes called Sudan Red or Sudan I, II, III and IV, all of which are known to cause cancer.
Immediately after the news was published, all the major supermarket chains removed the foods that had tested positive for Sudan Red from their shelves.
This Sunday, the headline in the Sunday Times "Food Cancer Scare Sparks Testing Frenzy" shows that South African food manufacturers and retailers are taking this food scare very seriously. All suspect products that could possibly contain one or more of the carcinogenic dyes are currently being tested. This is a positive move that should allay the fears of the public and prevent further exposure to Sudan I, II, III and IV.
Have you been following the reports in the national press? Are you worried that you may have ingested some of the contaminated foods? Take a look at these important questions and answers.
What are Sudan I, II, III and IV?
Sudan dyes are red colourants used to colour solvents, oils, waxes, petrol, shoe polish and floor polish.
Sudan I, II, III and IV are organic chemicals derived from coal tar, which belong to the azo dye group discovered nearly 150 years ago. While these dyes are approved for the uses listed above, they are banned for use in foods and beverages.
Where did these contaminated foods come from?
It has been suggested in the press that chilli and curry powders contaminated with Sudan Red dyes may have originated in India or other countries that use these dyes to increase the bright red colour of the condiment powders.
What health risks are associated with these dyes?
Soon after their discovery in the second half of the 18th century, evidence was found that these colourants could cause cancer. Tests done with animals in 1949 showed that Sudan Red dyes damaged the livers of rodents.
Researchers warn that the ingestion of Sudan dyes can also potentially cause cancer of the liver or leukaemia in humans.
According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, it is, however, not possible at this stage to "identify a safe level or to quantify the risk" if you have inadvertently eaten foods contaminated with Sudan I, II, III or IV.
What risk do I run if I have eaten food contaminated with these dyes?
The amounts of Sudan I, II, III and IV present in the tested foods were very small. The risk is, therefore, very small.
The FSA points out that anyone who is exposed to a potential carcinogen will not necessarily develop cancer because there are many different causes of cancer and individuals have different susceptibilities to any given carcinogen.
However, long-term exposure – even to micro-quantities of a carcinogen – can eventually lead to the development of cancer. Children and the elderly are regarded as the most vulnerable groups.
What should I do about this food scare?
At this stage, it is important not to panic. Thanks to the investigation launched by the Sunday Times this problem has been made public, the Department of Health has issued a warning, and all food manufacturers and retailers have been alerted. The large food chains have already taken the contaminated curry powders, chilli powders and achaars off their shelves and are busy testing other products that may be contaminated.
Stay informed by checking the media for future announcements of contaminated products. If you do have any of the listed products in your home, either discard or don't use them and contact the supermarket where you purchased them for a refund.
What safeguards do we have?
The South African public will be protected against future exposure to contaminated foods as all consignments of chilli and curry powder that are imported in future will be tested. Products will only be used if they have a certificate of clearance that ensures that they do not contain any of the Sudan Red dyes.
Certain supermarket chains are already advertising that the foods they stock do not contain any Sudan Red dyes. Such statements will be based on meticulous bookkeeping and testing. It should be perfectly safe to buy foods containing chilli or curry at such stores.
Labelling legislation, which should be published soon in South Africa, will also ensure that the foods we import from other countries meet much more stringent requirements than at present.
In the meanwhile, stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables to boost your antioxidant intake to protect you against a variety of cancers. Remember that the fresh chillies you purchase at the greengrocer are not contaminated and are perfectly safe to eat. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)
(References: Sunday Times of 20 & 27 March 2005; Food Standards Agency - Sudan dyes; www.eatwell.gov.uk/healthissues/)