FSANZ abandons enquiry into sulphites and benzoates


Australia’s food regulator, FSANZ, announced last week that it has abandoned an enquiry into two common preservatives, sulphites and benzoates. 

The enquiry had started in 2005 because estimated dietary exposures to the preservatives exceeded FSANZ’s safe levels in some instances. A recent internal review concluded that these preservatives were no longer a problem.

In 2005, the Food Intolerance Network made a 10 page submission with 35 scientific references but the major issues we raised have simply been ignored in the abandonment.

Consumers have been sold out yet again.

  • ·         Why does Australia allow triple the international level of sulphites in some products?
  • ·         Why should we ignore a doubling of sulphites found in cordials?
  • ·         Why has the production of cancer-causing benzene from benzoates been totally ignored?
  • ·         Why are significant real-world health and behaviour effects ignored in favour of exotic definitions of food safety?
  • ·         Is there undue industry influence on the food regulator to the detriment of consumers?

Sulphites (220-228)

Unbelievably, no mention was made of the major symptoms caused by sulphites, known since Roman times, of asthma and breathing difficulties. Instead, while it is hard to fathom, FSANZ examined safety of sulphites as “the absence of any gastrointestinal lesions” and they found no evidence that sulphites are “developmental or reproductive toxicants, or that they are carcinogenic”.

Therefore FSANZ have abandoned the review without addressing the major sulphite issue. It is as though one were to examine the safety of tigers in a zoo by saying that they won’t lick you to death!

Sulphites are mostly found in beef sausages, dried apricots and cordials for children, while adults consume them in white wine, beef sausages and dried apricots. Just half a dried apricot can exceed the Acceptable Daily Intake for a toddler and cause asthma.

Sulphite levels (ppm) permitted in various countries



Codex (EU)


Soft drinks








Dried fruit




While FSANZ often claim that certain levels of additives are necessary to meet international Codex standards, clearly this is not the case with sulphites, where FSANZ permits triple the usual level to the detriment of consumers.

Cordial manufacturers had claimed that there had been a reduction in levels of sulphites added to cordials since 2003 but the abandonment report found that average sulphite levels had doubled from 10ppm to 19ppm. The regulator’s response was to minimise this increase “these levels are in the same range of values and ... would be highly variable”.

Benzoates (210-219)

Benzoate preservatives have been implicated in a range of adverse reactions from children’s behaviour to urticaria to asthma and most recently with preschoolers’ behaviour.

But another real risk is that benzoates can react with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in soft drinks to produce cancer-causing benzene at levels above WHO safe levels for drinking water.

In 2006 the Food Intolerance Network helped in an investigation which found such elevated benzene levels in Australian soft drinks. Manufacturers and regulators, who had known about the problem for 15 years, promised to address this problem. However the issue was not even acknowledged in the abandonment. There is no evidence that benzene levels in soft drinks are any lower today than they were 10 years ago.

Again, a major issue has been ignored to the detriment of consumers.

Benzoates are mostly found in juice and juice products, carbonated beverages and cordials. The Codex permissions for benzoate addition to fruit juices, concentrates and nectars (1000mg/kg) are higher than the current permissions in the Australian Code (400 mg/kg) for fruit juices and fruit juice products, while all other benzoate permissions are similar.

References and more information

FSANZ abandonment and other documents:



Food Intolerance Network submission:



http://www.fedup.com.au/factsheets/additive-and-natural-chemical-factsheets/220-228-sulphite-preservatives for overview and how to avoid sulphites





http://www.fedup.com.au/images/stories/SC210-219benzoate.pdf for health and behaviour reports

http://www.fedup.com.au/fedup-newsletters/2006/failsafe47-january-march-2006 for benzene in soft drinks



http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/ChemicalContaminants/ucm055131.htm shows a 5% chance of benzene at 5 times UK drinking water limits.

http://www.fedup.com.au/information/information/scientific-references for references under Benzoates