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Mineral oil exposure in packaging and food possible cause for concern, says EFSA

By Rory Harrington , 07-Jun-2012

Exposure to mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) via packaging and some foods may pose a human health hazard, said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) - as it called for an overhaul of  acceptable daily intake (ADI) levels and suggested a raft of new measures to assess and monitor the risk from the substances.

The opinion from the food safety watchdog could lead to new regulation following evaluation by the European Commission.

The risk assessment body yesterday confirmed that recycled paperboard in food packaging – particularly without barrier linings - was likely to be a major source of exposure to MOHs and highlighted that some breads and grains contained the highest levels of the mixtures.

MOH are a diverse group of blends of hydrocarbons containing thousands of chemical compounds, all with different structures and sizes. The agency said the chemical make-up of MOHs varies from batch to batch, with the mixtures generally classified according to viscosity.

The two main categories assessed as part of the opinion were ‘aromatic’ and ‘saturated’ MOHs. Each presents different potential problems; aromatic mixtures may be carcinogenic while saturated forms of the chemical can accumulate in the body and cause liver damage.

Recent concerns over their effects in packaging came after Swiss scientists found that MOHs from inks contained in recycled paperboard were leaching into foods.

MOH Sources

The body outlined numerous sources for the presence of MOH in food, both through contamination and intentional uses in food production.

In food contact materials it underlined the key sources were recycled paper and board – which is held as one cause for their high presence in pudding desert mixes and noodles. Other sources are printing inks and additives used in the manufacture of plastics, such as lubricants and adhesives. Lubricants in can production and food wax coatings for fruit and chewing gum were also flagged up. Food additives and processing aids also contribute to levels of saturated mineral oils (MOSHs), along with release agents for bakery products, sugar products and oils for surface treatment of rice and confectionery.

Packaging problem and solutions

EFSA highlighted the importance of packaging in MOH dietary exposure in humans and outlined a number of possible solutions.

“MOH contamination of food by the use of recycled paperboard as packaging material may be a significant source of dietary exposure,” said the CONTAM panel.

The experts added:  “It can be effectively prevented by the inclusion of functional barriers into the packaging assembly. Other measures may include segregation of recovery fibre sources intended for recycling and the increasing of the recyclability of food packages by avoiding the use of materials and substances with MOH in the production of food packages.”

Risk and revising ADIs

After examining data and research, EFSA found that low - or background – levels were present in many foods. Highest levels of saturated MOH were discovered in ‘bread and rolls’ and ‘grains for human consumption’.

The panel concluded consumers who were loyal to particular brands or who bought products from the same shops could risk being exposed to higher MOH levels.

“There is a potential concern associated with the current background exposure to MOSH in Europe and in particular with the use of white oils as release agent for bread and to some extent for spraying of grains,” it added.

Dietary exposure to the mixtures is higher in children aged 3-10 than adult.

The panel noted that present ADIs  need to be re-examined based after their assessment showed results from previous studies used to set the levels are not very applicable to humans – especially regarding low and medium viscosity saturated MOHs.

Revision of ADI for high viscosity MOH was classified as a low priority.

Recommendations

EFSA put forward nine recommendations to tackle the issue – many of which focused on the need to gather more information and improve monitoring systems.

The need for developing certified reference standards to allow inter-laboratory validation and that future monitoring should be more sophisticated to distinguish between aromatic and saturated MOHs were highlighted.

Food groups that need to be monitored must also be outlined along with more analysis on where in the food production process contamination occurs. The latter would help in developing better monitoring programmes.

In terms of research, more investigation was needed to determine how applicable findings of liver damage in rats were to humans. Methods to improve the toxicological evaluations of MOH should also be investigated.

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