The BfR said its new technique – developed with the Swiss authorities that first raised the alarm over the issue - would give official food inspection laboratories the ability to test for mineral oils that may have migrated from recycled cardboard into food for the first time.
“Until now only an analytical method for detecting mineral oils in foodstuffs was available which required a very special analysis technology and could not be applied by food inspection laboratories,” it said.
The method is based on gas chromatographic analysis of the minerals following pre-separation by manual column chromatography. In order to help laboratories set up the analysis procedure, the BfR said it had also devised a method development kit.
Mineral oil risk
The German risk assessment body unveiled its analytical method at a recent international symposium attended by 400 experts which presented various options to tackle any potential threat from the substances.
The issue of mineral oil migration has become a hot food safety issues following the publication of two studies by Zurich’s Official Food Control Authority in 2010. The research highlighted the inclusion of newsprint in recycled paper and board as the main source of the potentially harmful oils. Further investigation found high levels of the mineral oils in 119 samples of dry food packed in paperboard boxes.
Contamination pathways for mineral oils into food packaging include printing inks from newspapers and advertising brochures. The mineral oil mixtures evaporate and pass from the packaging into the foodstuffs, said the BfR.
The mineral oil concerned is a complex mixture of mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH), some of which can have carcinogenic and mutagenic properties.
However, questions have been raised over the validity research by the Zurich authority – with the German body acknowledging that there was still a lack of data to quantify the health risk presented by the presence of the mineral oils in foods at currently detected levels.
“The health risk assessment of mineral oils found in foodstuffs is hampered by the absence of data on the toxicity of the substances which were detected in foodstuffs after migration from the packaging,” said the BfR.
Barrier technology - a sustainable solution
It also backed the use of technical barrier solutions, such as coatings or inner bags, on the inside of packaging made of already evaluated plastics for packaging. Employing these solutions employing these materials means food contamination risk can be “dramatically reduced”.
“These constitute a sustainable solution which, most importantly, allows short-term implementation,” said the BfR. “In addition, this approach enables exclusion of the possibility that other substances harmful to health make their way into foodstuffs from the recycled packaging.”