Last week, the European Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed released a joint statement setting limit values for the presence of mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) in food.
Instead of opting for maximum limits, the committee set stricter limits of quantitation (LOQ) and divided the food categories into three tiers.
For dry foods with a low fat/oil content equal to or less than 4%, 0.5 mg/kg MOAH is allowed; for foods with a higher fat/oil content of more than 4%, 1 mg/kg MOAH is permitted; and 2 mg/kg MOAH are allowed for fats and oils.
The new levels, which apply immediately, are not legally binding. It is up to the Member States to enforce the new requirements.
foodwatch sounds the alarm
The statement follows a campaign by consumer organization foodwatch to call on the Commission to set legally binding limits for MOAH in food.
MOAH food contamination can come from food packaging materials, food additives, processing aids, or from environmental contaminants such as lubricants.
The watchdog claims MOAH are toxic contaminants suspected of being carcinogenic and genotoxic, and as such takes a zero-tolerance position – deeming “any detectable presence” in a food product “unacceptable”.
Last year foodwatch published the results of an analysis of 152 products from Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. The results showed that one in eight products tested was contaminated.
The Commission then requested an analysis of these product categories. Surveillance focused primarily on bouillon cubes, chocolate spreads, biscuits and high-fat foods. Other food categories at risk could be infant formula, sauces and baked goods.
EFSA’s opinion has not yet been published, but the Commission has decided not to wait. Since last Tuesday, May 17th, all groceries in Europe have to comply with the new LOQs. Products that do not meet the requirements risk being withdrawn from the market depending on how closely Member States enforce the Commission’s rule.
According to food advocate and regulation specialist Cesare Varallo, the commission’s decision to act “with urgency” and “without a full dataset” is unusual. EFSA’s opinion is expected by the end of the year.
Although they apply immediately, Varallo believes the new values are “preliminary”, suggesting that the values could well change depending on EFSA’s opinion.
No transition period… is that fair?
In the absence of a transition period, food business operators are under pressure to ensure they comply with LOQs.
If the new limits are applied “immediately and consistently” across the industry, food advocate Varallo fears the impact on manufacturers could be “devastating”: “It’s a tough move for the industry” he said, “Especially in the catastrophic economic situation we are in right now, with rising production costs and oil shortages.”
The regulation expert continued: “It’s not easy to find vegetable oils in general, but it’s even harder to find vegetable oils that are currently MOAH-free because supply is very scarce.”
foodwatch, on the other hand, considers the Commission’s decision to set new limit values with immediate effect to be “absolutely” fair to the industry.
“In our last series of tests, we tested 152 products, 19 were contaminated (12.5%). This means the vast majority of food manufacturers know how to ensure their food is free of detectable MOAH.” Matthias Wolfschmidt, Internal Strategy Director at foodwatch, to FoodNavigator.
“The ones who are not handling this issue properly are the companies trying to save money instead of implementing the necessary safety standards for consumers. This is a new problem – they have been aware of possible contamination for many years and now immediate action must be taken.”
Trade association FoodDrinkEurope, which represents food and drink manufacturers, was unable to provide specific comments as it is “still evaluating this measure internally and consulting members”.
However, FDE has informed this publication that it is committed to reducing the transmission and occurrence of unwanted MOAH in food: “Industry experts try to identify and eliminate sources every day.”
Enforced by Member States, not the Commission
According to food law expert Varallo, the silver lining for food business operators is that enforcement is the responsibility of Member States and not the Commission itself. There is a possibility that the declaration will not be supported by the national enforcement authorities.
“Of course I would expect enforcement, [but] We cannot say at the moment in which countries we might see the first enforcement actions.”
foodwatch is dissatisfied with this milder approach and tells FoodNavigator that it wants legally binding limits for MOAH in food.
“foodwatch demands that the safety of consumers when consuming food that is not contaminated with MOAH can only be guaranteed if the LOQ, including the principle of non-detectability of MOAH, are legally binding.” explained Wolfschmidt.
Overall, of course, foodwatch welcomes the Commission’s “acknowledgment of the urgency” to have rules and “not just wait for the EFSA report to come out”.
However, since the watchdog has zero tolerance for MOAH, it challenges the established LOQs.
“The technology exists to detect 1 mg MOAH even in vegetable oils,” said Wolfschmidt. “Regulations should state that no detectable MOAH should be present in food in the European Union.
“Therefore the content of 2 mg in vegetable oils is too high. When we talk about dangerous contaminants, any detection by valid analytical methods must mean that the food has to be taken off the shelves.”