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Illinois lawmakers consider banning some chemicals used in food

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Candy corn and brightly colored drinks may be tasty, but Illinois lawmakers say some of them contain dangerous ingredients like red dye No. 3. They're debating whether to become the second state to ban the synthetic food coloring and other additives linked to health risks. From member station WBEZ, Alex Degman reports.

ALEX DEGMAN, BYLINE: You might not guess that Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who runs the DMV and the state library, is involved in the effort to ban red dye No. 3, but he also runs the state's organ and tissue donor registry, which he says looks bleak.

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ALEXI GIANNOULIAS: Tragically, we are seeing way too many chronically sick individuals and not enough healthy organs.

DEGMAN: Giannoulias blames that in part on what we eat. He's supporting a measure called the Illinois Food Safety Act. It would ban, by 2027, red dye No. 3, brominated vegetable oil, propylparaben and potassium bromate. Think ingredients that keep some baked goods from going bad. California became the first state to outlaw those additives last year. Democratic State Senator Willie Preston says it's Illinois's turn. He represents low-income areas in Chicago.

WILLIE PRESTON: There are children who, from the moment they leave out of their homes, they go to school - they only consume products laced with these five food additives.

DEGMAN: Red dye No. 3, used to color some candies and cookies, has been banned in U.S. cosmetics since 1990 after it was linked to cancer in lab animals. Preston is sponsoring the bill. Here he is in a recent committee hearing.

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PRESTON: All of these food additives have been linked to serious health risk, behavioral issues in children, cancer, thyroid issues, and this is impacting all of us.

DEGMAN: So why are these additives still in food? Charlyn Ware is a dietitian with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. She says our brains want food to look, feel and taste a certain way.

CHARLYN WARE: We don't want our cherries to be kind of pink or off-white. We want a red cherry.

DEGMAN: Ware says it's better to eat whole foods with fewer preservatives as a general rule, but...

WARE: Just to put it in perspective a little bit, chemical ingredients are in everyday products. Just because their presence is there doesn't mean that they're automatically going to cause harm.

DEGMAN: Groups like the Illinois Manufacturers' Association say it's up to the FDA to determine what causes harm, not individual state legislatures. Mark Denzler is the association's CEO and vice president.

MARK DENZLER: We don't need a patchwork of regulations around the country. What we need is one national policy. So a food manufacturer may have multiple facilities that are selling to multiple states. They have one set of rules instead of 50 different sets of rules across the country.

DEGMAN: Illinois has a rich candymaking history. The Ferrara Candy company, Mars and Tootsie Roll Industries are still based in Chicago. The National Confectioners Association says the proposal would raise those companies' operating costs and create unnecessary confusion. The bill is waiting for a vote in the Illinois Senate, but Preston, the sponsor, says ultimately, this should be a national issue. More than a dozen advocacy groups and nonprofits filed a petition in late 2022 asking the FDA to ban Red Dye No. 3. An FDA spokesperson says the petition is still under review.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Degman in Springfield, Ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF POST MALONE SONG, "CHEMICAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Degman | WBEZ
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