“For the products that contain the additive E410 known to be contaminated with ethylene oxide no safe level of exposure for consumers can be defined and hence any level consumers may be exposed to, presents a potential risk to consumers,” concluded the crisis coordinators representing all Member States, Iceland and Norway.
Locust bean gum – also known as carob gum - is a galactomannan vegetable gum extracted from the seeds of the carob tree and used as thickener, stabilizer and gelling agent in food. It has common applications in ice cream, yogurt, cheese, beverages, sauce & dressing and bakery products.
According to Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), ethylene oxide is carcinogenic and mutagenic. Its use is banned in food production in the EU. However, it is used in a number of third countries to combat fungi and bacteria.
On 8 June, Spain issued an RASFF alert notification related to the presence of ethylene oxide in Lygomme FM 4605 stabilizer from Turkey and used in ice cream made in Spain. The EC Food and Feed Crisis Coordinators held a series of three meetings – on 29 June, 30 June and 13 July – to ‘enhance coordination among Member States’.
Because ‘no safe level of exposure’ could be determined, the European authorities said that contaminated products need to be removed from the market. “It is necessary, in order to ensure a high level of health protection, that the food or feed business operators who have placed such products on the EU market shall, under the control of the national competent authorities, withdraw those products from the EU market, and recall them from consumers.”
E410 contamination tip of the iceberg?
The move was welcomed by consumer organisation Foodwatch, which said that ‘after weeks of discussions’ the Commission has ‘finally put its ranks in order’ and delivered a ‘strong political response’.
However, Foodwatch noted, ethylene oxide contamination remains an ongoing cause for concern, with potential contamination issues across other ingredients.
“Non-compliant foods containing ingredients illegally treated with ethylene oxide - a carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic disinfectant banned in Europe - have been circulating in Europe for months or even years,” Foodwatch France said in a statement.
In September last year, Belgium reported increased levels of ethylene oxide in sesame seeds from India via the European rapid alert system RASFF. Following this, French authorities adopted the precautionary principle and have since recalled nearly 7,000 products - from sesame to ice cream, pepper, ginger, shallots, coffee, bread, cookies and ready meals.
Not all Member States have been as judicious in their interpretation of the precautionary principle, Foodwatch noted. In Germany, according to the government’s food warning portal warning.de, 54 products have been publicly recalled. Other countries in the European Union did not initiate recalls of contaminated products, in particular ice cream, prompting Foodwatch to alert the Commission.
Foodwatch Germany representative Rauna Bindewald urged that ‘all products and their ingredients have to be demonstrably free of ethylene oxide’ to avoid ‘unnecessarily endanger[ing] the health of millions of Europeans’.