Erucic acid is a substance naturally found in some plant-derived oils, primarily in some varieties of mustard seed oil and high erucic acid rapeseed oil. Although there have been no confirmed cases of erucic acid toxicity in humans, high levels of erucic acid have been linked to the formation of fatty deposits in heart muscle in animals.
Backing up an earlier survey by Birmingham City Council, the FSA tested 71 samples of pickles, sauces and preserved vegetable products, produced in south and south east Asia, the Far East and the UK. Products were purchased during June and July 2004 from a range of retail and wholesale outlets in Manchester, Leicester, West Yorkshire and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. These locations were chosen as they have large Chinese and South Asian communities and a wide range of these products was likely to be available.
Eight out of 71 samples of pickles, sauces and preserved vegetables were found to contain levels of erucic acid exceeding the UK legal limit. The Erucic Acid in Food Regulations 1977 limit the erucic acid content of foods to no more than 5 per cent of the total fatty acid, in products with more than 5 per cent fat, although the latter restriction does not apply for foods aimed at infants or young children.
The affected products were found mostly in small food shops and cash and carrys serving local ethnic communities. The products were Lao Gan Ma hot pepper sauce and oriental black bean sauce, Priya green chilli pickle in oil, Ashoka Punjabi Mango Teeka, Nicobena hot mango pickle, Khanum minced green chilli paste, Pachranga International stuffed red chillies and Pran mixed pickles.
Andrew Wadge, director of Food Safety at the FSA, said: "The affected products are a small part of the pickles and preserve market aimed primarily at the Chinese and south Asian communities, but it is important that we act to take them off the shelves.
"As well as asking local authorities to act to remove these packets and jars from sale and to ensure similar products sold in their areas don't break the law, we are also talking to the importers of these foods to highlight the concerns about high levels of erucic acid and to identify the source of the problem."
The Agency also moved to reassure consumers that of the minimal risk of eating any of the products. "If you have occasionally eaten any of these products it is highly unlikely that you will have added to your risk of developing heart disease," it said.
"In addition, some limited animal studies have suggested that any fatty deposits that might have formed around the heart following consumption of high levels of erucic acid, will disappear over time if erucic acid consumption is reduced."