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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(or the sorry tale of Sudan I dye in Worcester sauce)
24th February 2005
That ugly bandit Sudan I is on the rampage again having been let loose from jail onto an unsuspecting world.

The British Government's food watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), has instructed all retailers in the UK to remove products from their shelves which have been contaminated with the Sudan I dye which is illegal in foodstuffs on account of its cancer causing properties. Consumers have been advised by the Agency not to eat products containing the dye which were sold before the recall could take effect.

The villain in this case was a batch of chilli powder used by Premier Foods of St. Albans in the UK to manufacture a Worcester sauce which was then itself used as an ingredient in a wide range of manufactured food products. At the time of writing nearly 500 products, with a value of over £100million, have been named by the FSA.

The list of products containing the tainted Worcester sauce makes for fascinating reading. Apart from products where you might expect to find Worcester sauce, such as cottage pie and beef stew, products as diverse as mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing, sausages, soup and pizzas have been affected.

Lea and Perrins Worcester sauce
       Thankfully, and unlike the previous scare in 2003, curry fans can take comfort. A quick look at the FSA's latest list of products contaminated by the Worcester sauce confirms no Indian-style foods have been affected. Sir Gulam Noon, whose company make the majority of Britain's ready-made curries, has confirmed that "None of the Indian restaurants or manufacturers of ready-made Indian meals are affected by the Sudan dye scare."

So who are the Good in this sorry tale? Well, whatever you do don't throw away any Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce. Fortunately, their product was not affected in any way because the contaminated sauce was made by Crosse and Blackwell, a rival brand owned by Premier Foods. Or maybe the Good are Noon and the other Indian food producers who source their own spices and have them tested regularly for hygiene and quality.

The Bad is not just Sudan dye. Its proper use is as an industrial dye in things like wax and floor polish. When used for its correct purpose it is quite innocent. It is when greedy and unscrupulous people illegally use the dye to increase the value of their cheap dull-coloured chilli powder by changing its colour into the highly prized and twice-as-expensive vibrant red sort that trouble begins.

The spice dealers who sold on improperly tested chilli powder don't come out of this looking very saintly either.
       Sudan I dye in the laboratory

Crosse and Blackwell Worcester sauce
       There's no doubt who the Ugly are. It's just not good enough for a giant food company like Premier Foods to use the defence that they "received written assurance that the chilli powder did not contain Sudan 1" The Sudan dye scandal had been in the public domain since 2003. One of the firms in the chain which supplied the tainted chilli powder to Premier Foods were obliged to pay out compensation in 2003 to other customers for supplying them with contaminated chilli powder. Yet Premier Foods still managed, however innocently, to use chilli powder from the very same consignment to make the Worcester sauce which has caused all the trouble. If Premier Foods can invest so much time and resources into marketing their products then surely they ought to test a commodity with a well known history of being adulterated? Premier Foods didn't even discover the problem themselves. The presence of Sudan dye only came to light when a firm in Italy carried out their own tests on the Worcester sauce they had imported from Premier Foods.

And the moral of the story?

It has taught us all a lesson in modern food processing. How many people would have been aware that Worcester sauce is used in so many and diverse products? Mayonnaise?? Pizza???? More worryingly, the case has shown how vulnerable the food distribution chain is. One rogue element in a seemingly innocent ingredient has affected hundreds of products and allowed thousands of people to eat a potentially cancer inducing ingredient.

But however angry we may be about illegal substances being dumped in our food we should keep the health risk in perspective. Dr Jon Bell, Chief Executive of the FSA, has these words of consolation about the contaminated products "At the levels present the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any more. There is no risk of immediate ill-health."

Let's hope Sheriff FSA can get Sudan I back behind bars a soon as possible.

associated links and sources :

Food Standards Agency - list of re-called products

Premier Foods - press release

The Times - "How the cancer spice came to Britain"

The Independent - "Cancer dye supplier has been fined before"

Hindustan Times (UK edition) - "Indian meals not affected by Sudan 1 scare"

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© 2005 David W Smith