Carmine Food Controversy

Carmine is used in many foods as a colorant, quite commonly on meats to give them a “fresh” red look. Once meat is cut, the surface is subject to oxidation of the heme iron in myoglobin, giving the meat a brown tint. Consumers associate bright pink beef with “fresh” and brown with “aged”. Since most consumers prefer “fresh” colorant is often added to the meat to increase consumer appeal.

Carmine is expensive to produce. It is time consuming to grow the cactus needed to feed the cochineal scale insect, and much of the care and harvesting of the scale insect is done by hand labor. Carmine dyes were important trade items for Spain for several centuries starting in the early 1500s. In the late 1800s, Carmine dyes were replaced to some extent by synthetic red dyes because of their lower cost. Demand for carmine declined in the 1900s, but found new markets as food colorants when questions were raised about the synthetic red dyes.

However, the carmine dyes are not controversy free. Carmine may be contaminated with small traces of scale insect and insect protein. Some cultures and diets restrict eating insects as food (or at least restrict their addition to food.) Some people have allergies to insects. These groups do not want food colored with carmine. In 2009, the US-FDA required that food colored with carmine would be required to be labeled this year (January, 2011). The label must only state that the food contains carmine. The US-FDA did not require statements that the carmine is derived from insects or animals.

The market price for cochineal fluctuates. When prices are low, growers may switch to other crops. Price increases in cochineal, such as occurred last year (2010) due to shortage of production encourages people to grow more cochineal. Cochineal production takes 2-3 years from first commitment to first harvest. Because of the higher prices, cochineal production is once more on the increase. Production of cochineal is expensive, but it provides an important source of income.

Breeding of the Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) in Oaxaca, Mexico
The baskets are used to innoculate cactus with cochineal scale insects.
Photo: Oscar Carrizosa

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Carmine Food Controversy

  1. Dale Hoyt says:

    I seem to remember back in 1969 or ’70 that carmine was recalled or banned because of contamination (I forget with what). Do you have any knowledge of what that was about? My department chairman had us go through the stockroom and discard any bottles of carmine or cochineal we had.

    • jjneal says:

      During the 1970s, there were some batches of carmine that were contaminated with Salmonella. US-FDA requires that cochineal extract be pasteurized to destroy Salmonella before it is applied to food.

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