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‘Uncertainties’ but no specific health risk over mineral oil migration from packaging - UK

By Rory Harrington , 15-Dec-2011
Last updated the 15-Dec-2011 at 18:16 GMT

There are no specific food safety concerns regarding leaching of mineral oils and ink chemicals from carton board packaging into food and consumers do not need to change their eating habits, according to research by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA).

But the body acknowledged that “uncertainty” over how safe exposure to the substances was and that more research was needed on the issue.

The food safety watchdog reached its conclusion after carrying out a survey into the migration of components from printing inks – including mineral oils - used on carton board packaging.

“There is uncertainty and there is a lot more information needed about the levels of mineral hydrocarbons people could be exposed to,” Diane Benford, FSA head of the risk assessment chemical unit, told FoodProductionDaily.com.

She added: “But based on what we currently know, we did not identify any specific food safety concerns and we feel there is no significant risk.”

The agency found that around 8% contained one or more of the highlighted substances. Some 51 packaging materials contained mineral oils, with a third of these showing MOAH concentrations higher than the level of detection.

But the body said while there were gaps in toxicological data for mineral oils, it had carried out a full risk assessment and concluded the detected levels did not present a health risk to humans.

Knowledge gaps

The testing was carried out at the Canton of Zurich laboratory, whose research has led concerns on the issue. While the Swiss facility has acknowledged expertise a number of unknowns around the field still remain.

The lab has developed methods for identifying mixtures on mineral oils in two major groups: mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oils aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH). But individual mineral oils in these mixtures cannot yet be identified, said the FSA

There are currently no specific European migration limits for printing inks and mineral oils in this type of packaging – but packaging containing them must adhere to the general framework regulation EC 1935/2004.

Internationally, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has undertaken risk assessments and assigned Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) levels to different mineral oils. These are:

  • High viscosity mineral oils - ADI of 0 – 20 mg/kg body weight per day;
  • Medium and low viscosity mineral oils (class I) - ADI of 0 – 1 mg/kg body weight per day; and
  • Medium and low viscosity mineral oils (class II and III) - ADI of 0 – 0.01 mg/kg body weight per day.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is due to issue an opinion on mineral oils early next year, has asked for toxicological data on these as part of this exercise.

UK Survey results

Of the 350 samples tested, 84 (24%) contained one or more of the selected ink chemicals, while Benzophenone was found in 37 (11%) of products.

For mineral oils MOSH were found in all 51 samples tested, with MOAH levels higher than the level of detection in 17 (33%) of these cases.

Interpretation

The FSA acknowledged there was limited toxicological information for many of the ink components in the survey but said it has used available data – including that from related substances - and concluded they did not “give rise to any concern in relation to human health”.

For mineral oils, the FSA said its assessment assumed that food containing mineral oil from packaging would be consumed daily and that the substances found in packaging would leach into food. This approach tended to over-estimate the potential risk to consumers, it said.

“On the basis of the levels of mineral oils found in the food packaging and the assumptions used in our risk assessment, the FSA does not consider that the presence of mineral oils in the packaging at the levels found indicate any specific food safety concerns,” said the FSA.

It concluded: ”The FSA position is that consumer’s exposure to mineral oils in carton-board food packaging is not a risk to consumer’s health. The FSA‟s advice is that there is no need for consumers to change their eating habits with respect to food that has been packaged in virgin or recycled carton-board.”

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