In 2011 Spain authorised the use of hydrogen peroxide as a processing aid for cephalopods -such as squid, cuttlefish and octopus - and porcine hemoderivates due to its "bacteriostatic effect".
This year Italian authorities followed suite after a request made by the National Association of Fish Companies (Assoittica), approving use of the chemical as a processing aid to remove the outer skin of cephalopods.
Italy's food safety authority has said the hydrogen peroxide content must not exceed 8% and the citric acid and the sodium citrate content must not exceed 15%.
There are also limits on the contact time with the seafood and the specifications for the rinsing process. These criteria “ensure a high level of consumer protection,” it says.
Processing aid or food additive?
But while hydrogen peroxide is authorised in the EU as a processing aid (and manufacturers are not required to list processing aids on food labels because in theory they do not remain in, or alter, the final product) it is not approved as a food additive. If hydrogen peroxide is being used as a food additive to bleach food and remains in the final product, this would be in breach of EU law.
EU regulation 1333/2008 defines processing aids as “substances not consumed as food itself but used intentionally in the processing of foods, which only remain as residues in the final food and do not have a technological effect in the final product”.
This prompted a series of written questions and answers between Italian Member of European Parliament (MEP) from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Renata Briano, and the European Commission, the issue whether consumers are being deceived has arisen.
“Hydrogen peroxide has long been used in Spain to whiten the meat of molluscs in order to make it more aesthetically appealing,” she wrote in a written question to the Commission back in April.
“Although the Italian and Spanish health authorities have not identified any health risks, anyone buying, for instance, squid has no means of determining whether it has been treated or not.
“How does the Commission intend to ensure that consumers and food-sector operators are able to make informed purchasing decisions [and] would it agree that, for transparency's sake, the use of appearance-altering substances should be specified on labels?"
The Commission replied: "Member States have been informed at several occasions during dedicated meetings on additives that the use of hydrogen peroxide for bleaching as a food additive is not authorised. All Member States agree with this interpretation."
It also requested more information from the Italian authorities which in turn confirmed it had the use of the chemical as a processing aid in order to allow processors to remove the outer skin - any residue of the chemical is removed with the skin, it said.
A bleached clean - but not very transparent - label
Briano’s written question to the Commission suggests that, for the sake of consumer clarity, “appearance-altering substances” should be specified on labels because, although there are no associated health risks, consumers have no way of knowing whether they have been used.
This prevents them from making an informed purchasing choice, she says.
If a side effect of the processing aid is that it bleaches the product, it will make it seem fresher to consumers.
According to food law expert and managing director of Hylobates consultancy, Luca Bucchini said: “It has been argued that omitting processing aids from the ingredient list, as per current regulations, deceives consumers.
"It is a difficult debate, but, in this case, the key issue is whether these are food additives disguised as processing aids, or not, and whether additional information should be provided to consumers.”
Bleaching agents for flour have been banned because they were unauthorised food additives, said Bucchini.
“It is an important precedent, though a careful assessment would be needed.”
During a workshop on food innovation, European consumer rights organisation BEUC questioned whether so-called clean food labels were telling the whole truth to consumers given the thin line between food additives and processing aids including enzymes.
Race to the bottom?
Furthermore, when challenged by Briano on Spain’s use of the chemical, health and food safety commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a written response published last week: “As regard the other member states, the Commission does not dispose of any official information that the use of hydrogen peroxide is authorised.”
A surprising reaction in Bucchini's eyes.
“One is a bit surprised that the Commission could not find 2011 Spain's decision by using Google, or by asking Spain's authorities. If the Commission is not proactive, consumers may suffer and the internal market lose credibility."
It is right for the Commission to get involved, he said, adding that unless an EU standard is agreed and enforced, the risk is that member states may end up engaged in a race to the bottom for food standards.