The fate of maraschino cherries' brilliant red color hangs precariously by a thin stem. There are serious doubts about the safety of the food dye that transforms dull-yellow cherries into artificially bright scarlet garnishes for everything from cocktails to cakes.
This week the Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization, filed a suit against the federal government to force a ban on the color additive known as FD&C Red No. 3, a chemical found to produce thyroid tumors in laboratory animals.
The trouble surrounding Red No. 3 is yet another problem for artificial food colors, a collection of chemicals that has one of the worst safety records of any additives used in the modern food supply.
Over the years, 24 variously colored dyes have altered the appearances of processed foods. Seventeen of those have been either banned or voluntarily withdrawn from market, a 70% failure rate.
The Health Research Group wants three of the seven remaining artificial food dyes banned immediately and believes the others are potentially unsafe as well.
"We hear a lot of hoopla from companies as to why they need food colors, and it all turns out not to be true," said Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, Health Research Group director. "There are many national brand products with a significant shelf life that do not have dyes and colors and do perfectly well (in sales). That's because (consumers) do not want food laced with this junk."
The group first petitioned the Food and Drug Administration in mid-December to ban FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6 and several other dyes used primarily for cosmetics. Dissatisfied with the government's continuing inaction on the matter, Health Research has now taken its case to the U.S. District Court to force a ban on the three color agents because all caused cancer in laboratory animals.
The suit seeks to have the agency enforce a federal statute, the Delaney clause, which requires that all additives and preservatives suspected of being carcinogens be removed from the food supply.
In addition to the cancer indictment, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 both trigger allergic reactions, and all three additives have caused chromosomal damage in animals during lab tests.
The three food colors in question amount to about 50% of the 3.4 million pounds of dye consumed by Americans in 1984, according to Wolfe.
"By failing to immediately ban these dyes, the Reagan Administration is making a mockery out of its alleged cancer reduction goals . . .," Wolfe wrote in the December petition to FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young.
Wolfe also cites a 1976 government study that states children are especially vulnerable to threats posed by food dyes. The report estimated that between 95% and 99% of all children eat some chemically colored foods such as candy, desserts or baked goods. The study also estimated that most American youths consume about one pound of the suspect dyes by the time they are 12 years old.
"In addition to the possibility that (children) are more susceptible to carcinogenic chemicals such as food dyes, (they) will have a longer history of ingestion and thus a greater likelihood of developing cancer because they eat these dyes," Wolfe stated.
A food industry representative claims, however, that Red No. 3 is safe and should remain in foods. Harry C. Mussman, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Assn., said that the 1982 and 1981 tests that indicted Red No. 3 as a carcinogen contained a number of errors in the materials and dosages used. There were also problems with the interpretation of results, he said.
More recent animal and human feeding tests have shown that the red food color is not directly responsible for the thyroid tumors found in previous research. Instead, only at high dosage levels does the dye interfere with hormone metabolism and indirectly place a strain on the thyroid, ultimately leading to a cancerous growth, Mussman said.
"If you look at the situation objectively, then (Red No. 3) is safe for its intended use. Then why should you not be permitted to use it if it imparts an attractive color and helps people to identify products that are desirable to purchase?" Mussman said.
The Certified Color Manufacturers Assn., a trade group in favor of retaining the yellow dyes, would not comment on the suit by the Health Research Group. However, food industry representatives express confidence in the safety of both Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6.
"If there was any evidence of a hazard to humans (from these two dyes), then the industry would stop using them forthwith," said one knowledgeable food industry source who requested anonymity. "The data is clean and there isn't a problem. I don't understand the opposition (to the yellow food colors)."