Dr David Jukes, The University of Reading, UK

Providng access to food law since May 1996

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Last updated: 3 April, 2019

UK Food Additives

Historical Development of Legal Controls (1925-2000)


With the development of food analysis towards the end of the 19th Century, there was increased concern at the adulteration of foods.  This led to the adoption of the early food acts which made the sale of food ‘not of the nature, substance or quality demanded’ an offence.  However, there was a debate as to whether more specific controls were needed to prevent the use of toxic substances in food – especially food preservatives.  Initial controls were introduced for milk and cream in 1912.

However, in 1925 the first more general controls were introduced as public health measures [Stage 1 in the figure below].  These placed restrictions on the use of preservatives and prohibited the use of certain colours known to be toxic.  These 1925 Regulations were progressively amended and extended and remained in operation until finally being revoked by the detailed Preservatives in Food Regulations in 1962.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 led to food rationing and tight controls on the supply of food. Under Defence Regulations, additional controls were adopted.  These included controls on food additives, for example, permission to use borax as a preservative and detailed controls on saccharin tablets [Stage 2 in the figure].  As the food supply remained difficult for some years after the end of the war in 1945, the authority of the defence regulations continued until they were completely removed in 1954.

Increased use of advanced toxicity studies led to the investigation of food additives based on functional class.  During the 1950s and 1960s there was the progressive adoption of detailed controls on several classes – artificial sweeteners (in 1953), colours (1957), antioxidants (1958), emulsifiers and stabilisers (1962) and preservatives (1962) [Stage 3 in the figure].

The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) or ‘Common Market’ in 1973.  At that time, the EEC had already begun adopting harmonised controls for different classes of additives.  This started with a colours directive in 1962 but controls were extended with directives on preservatives (1964), antioxidants (1970) and emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents (1974).  Although there were some transitional arrangements on joining the EEC, the UK implemented these directives into UK legislation by UK regulations [Stage 4 in the figure].  These directives were progressively extended and became more detailed particularly during the programme for ‘completing the internal market’ (1985-1992). This led to the adoption of updated directives on sweeteners (1994), colours (1994) and all other additives (1995). At this point, the use of food additives was based entirely on common rules adopted as directives and implemented by the adoption of UK regulations.

In 2008, the European Union (as it had become by then) fully updated the controls by replacing the various directives with more comprehensive controls based on EU regulations covering additives, enzymes and flavourings (together commonly referred to as ‘improvement agents’).  As EU regulations are directly applicable in Member States, the technical content is contained in the published EU regulations (in the Official Journal) but, for enforcement purposes, the UK adopted UK regulations to establish appropriate legal processes [Stage 5 in the figure].

This figure is also available in pdf format: click here

Access to the legislation is provided on two separate pages as follows:

Part 1 - Early controls before the UK joined the Common Market in 1973

Part 2 - Implementation of EU-based Controls: 1973 - 2000

Page first provided: 3 April 2019

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