Key Hungarian ingredient pulled from shelves

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Carcinogen

Hungary has banned sales of its ubiquitous national spice paprika
after high levels of potential carcinogenic aflatoxins were found
in warehouse stocks, writes Lindsey Partos.

Short of the 6,000 tonnes consumed by Hungarians annually, the country imported from the tropics the premium spice, used in a range of food products and increasingly as a natural food colour.

Health minister Jeno Racz said this week that government checks found paprika stored in public warehouses contained high levels of the toxic material aflatoxin but the toxin had only been found in imported paprika coming from the tropics "suggesting that the products were illegally mixed with domestic products."

The ban is effective from Thursday and food retailers must withdraw all products containing paprika.

A poor harvest in 2003 pushed Hungarian producers to import paprika from other sources - other world producers are Peru, Zimbabwe, South Africa and India - and because the "discovered aflatoxin does not form in the Hungarian climate, it would apprear that it got into the processed products from the imported products," said Dr Bujdoso Laszlo, the chief national medical officer in Hungary.

The Hungarian health minister added that warehouse investigations showed concentrations of aflatoxin from 10 to 15 times higher than permitted in some samples.

Aflatoxins are formed by certain moulds growing on some food crops - in warm, humid conditions - during production and storage. They have been shown to be carcinogenic - cancer causing - in animals and aflatoxin B1, the most toxic, is classified as both a human carcinogen and mutagenic - it damages DNA. EU consumers are protected by existing legislation that controls the maximum levels of aflatoxins permissible in foodstuffs.

Paprika production has a long tradition of several hundred years in Hungary, introduced by the Turks in the 17th century, and is traditionally cultivated in two regions of the country - Szeged and Kalocsa.

Used in meat, fish, sauces and salad dressings the spice and colorant made from the ground, dried, ripe fruit of the herb Capiscum annum L.​ contributes flavour and colour to foods with the pod providing the red colour. The spice has a good tinctorial strength, pH stability, but poor stability to light and oxidation.

On the back of the functional food trend, food makers are increasingly turning to more expensive colouring foodstuffs such as paprika to replace artificial equivalents in their product formulations, generating growth in the natural foodstuffs market.

Frost and Sullivan analyst Lyndsey Greig estimated recently that natural colourings are looking at 10 to 15 per cent growth in Europe between 2001 and 2008, compared to just 1 per cent growth in the overall European colouring market.

But a barrier for using the natural foodstuffs in formulations is their delicate profile. "Artificial colourings are robust and stable, whereas natural colourings, such as paprika and tumeric, are more susceptible,"​ Derek Pulford, technical liaison manager at UK firm TasteTech recently told FoodNavigator.com.

The firm said earlier this year that its established controlled release (CR) technology will enable paprika and tumeric to survive the harsh conditions of an acidic low pH dressing. According to TasteTech a protective microfilm of vegetable oil stops the delicate colourings from being attacked by the acidity, that would otherwise turn the colours from bright orange to pale yellow.

"The spices are only released from the microfilm when the sauce is cooked,"​ added Pulford, due to the release mechanism that only functions in cooked food products because the heat has to melt the oil coating.

The Hungarian government advised consumers this week that because locally produced paprika does not contain aflatoxin exposure to the population is negligible. The chief medical officer recommended that products shown to have "negative laboratory test results" are regularly listed on the website​ and that if the products found at home are on the list, "they can be safely consumed".

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