Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum distillation. Low levels of contamination could occur during harvesting, storage, processing and packaging, but in April 2008 French authorities informed the European Commission of the presence of higher than expected levels in sunflower oil imported from the Ukraine.
The Commission subsequently imposed special conditions on the import of Ukrainian oil with decision 2008/433/EC: Imports are prohibited unless accompanied by a valid certificate of the level of mineral oil present.
Moreover, even once the Ukrainian authorities have a control and certification system in place, the decision stipulated that member states should double check the value on the certificate.
These restrictions may be lifted in the autumn, however, as the Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office has positively assessed the systems put in place by Ukraine – and double checking has now shown any issues since last July.
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) has added given more cause for the conditions to be relaxed as 80 per cent of 55 analytical labs in 17 member states, plus Switzerland and Ukraine, were seen to successfully test mineral oil levels.
The labs received test samples of naturally contaminated and ‘spiked’ mineral oil, and were asked to analyse them using their in-house methods. Between 78 and 85 per cent were seen to satisfactorily measure levels. (Performance is expressed as a z-score, with results between -2 and +2 seen as satisfactory).
Although the Ukrainian authorities have been investigating the cause of the contamination, no findings have been publically communicated.
Infrastructure and industry
“The contaminated sunflower oil case highlights the importance of having a well-functioning measurement infrastructure for food control, to enhance confidence in measurements and promote the ‘measured once, accepted everywhere’ philosophy,” said the JRC.
Relaxing the rules will be welcomed by importers into the EU, as they have been expected to bear the costs of checking for the second time.
When asked whether there are concerns about the 20 per cent of labs that did not perform satisfactorily, a spokesperson for the JRC pointed out that this kind of analysis was new to many of the labs, and better capabilities are expected with more experience.
“Furthermore, the design of the proficiency test was targeted at benchmarking the performance of a laboratory in comparison to a pool of peer laboratories and not so much at finding out whether a laboratory is able to come up with the correct answer.”
Ukraine is a major producer of sunflower oil and seeds. According to the Ukrainian Agrarian Confederation, Ukraine has exported 1.7 million tons of sunflower oil in the 2008/2009 marketing year. Preliminary data indicates it has one million tons of sunflower seeds.