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Sudan 1 Food Scare: Distant Thunder to Approaching Storm

To build off of Zaid's Postcards from the Global Food System, it's timely to talk about the latest food scare descending upon Europe. No, it's not BSE or foot and mouth disease. This time it's a seemingly harmless dry ingredient, Sudan 1, a banned carcinogenic red food dye used in making red chili powder, which entered the UK's food system early February. At last count this substance has contaminated over 600 products, and has spread to 14 EU countries. A specific recall was made for Crosse and Black Worcester sauce made by Premier Foods.


The scandal has been unfolding at a few levels. First, there was the initial shock that this illegal dye entered the country undetected, despite apparent warnings over a year ago that it was likely to do so. Given the myriad of go-betweens in the food supply chain, it's not surprising this happened. For instance, we know that about 1-5 tonnes of the red dye was purchased in India from Mumbai-based Gautam Exports by EW Spices in Essex. This importer then sold the dye to East Anglia Food, which sold it to Unbar Rothon, which sold it to Premier Foods, which manufactured the various products using the die, which were in turn distributed to all the major brands in the country, including Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Unilever, Heinz, McDonald's and Schweppes. So we're talking at least 6-7+ degrees of separation between origination and end consumer ingestion. This is complicated matrix of distribution is not uncommon in a globalized food system where inputs often come from many different countries at different stages of manufacture, thus making accountability and traceability difficult even with good technology solutions.

The second and most serious cause of concern, however, is just how long it took regulators to respond to this problem, a slowness disturbingly reminiscent of how the UK handled the BSE crisis.

After Sudan 1 was detected on Feb 7th, it wasn't until Feb 18th that something was done about it. So people were eating the known carcinogen for a full 10 days before they were notified! The food companies are being careful to distance themselves from any culpability. With the PR spin machine working overtime, they are stressing how quickly they were able to get the untoward products off the shelves, in less than 48 hours of being alerted, thanks to a new supply chain "traceability" process. That's all well and good -- applauds all round -- but this smells a little too strongly of self-congratulations, not entirely appropriate at times like these.

Then, when I was in London last week, admittedly reading the trashy tabloids, I noticed the topic shift and widen away from just blaming the regulators to also casting dispersions on consumer behaviour. Red dyes, for instance, are critical for making prepared and processed foods look appealing. With an increasingly large group of Britons subsisting almost exclusively on these foods, the scandal is now raising larger questions about the long term health implications about these eating habits and alarming diet trends.

It's a tricky and nuanced debate about where demand comes from and thus were the solutions lie: Are retailers just responding to the unmet needs of people who want convenient access to food in their overly-subscribed lives? Or do retailers create and inflate this demand? The answer is both/and. Yet until recently, the debate has favoured the suppliers' arguments (which is still the case in the US.) Despite the pressures of food industry lobbyists, however, the tide may be shifting in the other direction; it's getting harder and harder for food retailers and producers to avoid culpability, to avoid at least some responsibility in stimulating this demand.

Indeed, the mass availability of prepared foods in the UK is striking and clearly part of the problem. If you walk into a Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury's, it's not unusual to see 60-80% of the retail space devoted to just prepared foods. Craving something green, I frequently struggle to find something not prepackaged or shrink-wrapped, which is a huge contrast from my life in France, living just 100 meters from a farmer's market where most of what I eat comes straight from where it's been grown or killed. (Though France is becoming just as bad as the UK in many areas. See Baguettes-to-go.)

So while not quite "the next tobacco" hype, don't be surprised to see future government interventions encouraging, and even aggressively mandating, suppliers to produce healthier options for people. Consumers might be similarly incentivized, from both their governments and employers, especially once we get more conclusive evidence linking diet with things like an individual's performance. Already the UK government is taking a strong stance on addressing obesity, siding with mounting evidence from organizations like the WHO on the dangers of trans fats in our diets.

Sudan 1 is fortunately not immediately life threatening. Even so, this crisis highlights many of the vulnerabilities and unsustainable aspects of our global food system. Another disguised blessing is that scandals like these are good in raising public awareness about these issues. They are one of the few times when many of the invisible, taken-for-granted aspects of our food system are made more transparent, albeit often well after the fact. Many complacent consumers (and that includes most of us) didn't really think about what went into the prepared foods they were eating.

Unfortunately, this one crisis is unlikely to change the behaviour of either consumers or producers. There are too many barriers at present preventing this kind of systemic learning which has to happen at multiple levels. But as I wrote in Getting into the Dirt (which alludes to some of the multifaceted causes why the current system is so unsustainable) these kinds of food shocks and disruptions will increase in frequency and be those "inevitable surprises" we should have seen coming. Yes, a prediction of sorts because the pattern is becoming clear: like BSE, foot and mouth disease, and SARS (which was caused because of poor livestock practices in dense urban areas), this latest Sudan 1 crisis is the thunder signaling a much larger storm on the near horizon unless we make some big course corrections within our global food system.

The good news is that the process of envisioning, innovating, and prototyping new approaches to food production and consumption is well underway, thanks to the work of countless pioneers over the last decades. Let's surface some of these examples again s.v.p. -- give me your favourites! Large producers and actors like Unilever are also waking up to these facts and future dynamics, which is encouraging. Many other manufacturers, however, still remain in deep denial about this, even if parts of these companies (people I know who exist because I've worked with them) are becoming more sensitized to what's ahead. The trick now will be how to scale these experiments, change consumer behavior in a more profound way, and get the existing actors to adapt and change their model in a way that's economic, cultural, and ecologically sustainable. This is why the Sustainable Food Lab is so important. It's one of the few noteworthy efforts I know trying to catalyze this process at multiple levels and across stakeholder groups. So we'll look forward with bated breath to Zaid Hassan's timely reflections working on this project, his Postcards from the Global Food System.

To monitor coverage on the topic, see devoted sections in mainstream papers:The Guardian and The Times, and the FT.

Also check out the excellent Slow Food website and movement.

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To me this story tells us a lot about the state of our food chains and less about the dangers of food. I feel the press has blown this one out of all proportion by blaming the regulators. What about the companies that sold and used the stuff? Deborah Orr of the Independent asks the question of how come the companies using the stuff didn't notice? After you can tell by simply looking at the chilli powder - which was three years old - that an artificial dye has been used.

Carcinogens take a lot more than 10 days to have any impact - I highly doubt the public's health has been compromised in any serious way.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 27 Feb 05

I agree that this might be overblown, and truth be told we don't really know what Sudan 1 does to us.

That's not really the main point I'm making. Regardless of the harm issue -- as you also say -- I think that the Sudan 1 scandal is more of an indicator of the vulnerabilities and faults within the food system, especially on the supply side, which has more hidden and less transparent elements than the demand side (although this not simple either.) The question is will key actors -- including manufacturers and retailers and distributors -- within the system learn from this? Or learn the right kind of lessons?

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 27 Feb 05

The short answer is "no (we will not learn the right lessons, unless forced to do so)".

I mean, what are we to learn from this? That we should buy local? If we buy local, we still need a very different "control" (i.e., let's know what has already happened so we can stop it in the not too distant future) system. A "control" system which we don't yet have, do we?

Maybe I'm just pesimistic today, but ...

Could we have a "buy local" system with "batteries" ("control") included? What would that look like? Is anyone working on it? If it's better, *then* people may make the switch - in fact, you may even hear the World Health Organization _recomending_ such a switch.

Posted by: lugon on 27 Feb 05

I agree with what you say Nicole. I think the food supply chain is fraught.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 27 Feb 05

Normal mexican-style chilli powder is simply a convenient mixture of: oregano; cumin; dried garlic; and dried red pepper, often cayanne. If you make your own chilli with the base ingredients it's far better tasting, especially if one uses fresh garlic and smoke-dried ancho, arbole, and other traditional mexican peppers. Its not hard and the rewards are significant. I'm sure there's a parallel to any asian chilli mixtures. Thus, I have to agree with commenters who say that the blame spreads to consumers; and also with Mark Twain, I think it was, who said, laconically, that most people are no more than passages for food, albeit bad food and done willingly.

Sidebar: dried peppers from China can pose a hazard that prospectively could be far worse than that of Sudan 1 as a chilli ingredient: i.e. in China peppers traditionally are directly dried over open burning coal gilles. IN those parts of China where coal contains very high levels of arsenic, lead, and flouride, flouride poisining in particular has taken a high human toll. Still another reason to make your own chilli.

Posted by: John Laumer on 28 Feb 05



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