Last week, Europe’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animal, Food and Feed published a joint declaration establishing limits on the presence of mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) in food.
Instead of opting for maximum limits, the Committee has outlined stricter limits of quantification (LOQ), separating food categories into three levels.
For dry foods with a low fat/oil content of equal to or less than 4%, 0.5mg/kg of MOAH is permitted; for foods with a higher fat/oil content, of more than 4%, 1mg/kg of MOAH is permitted; and 2mg/kg of MOAH is allowed for fats and oils.
The new levels, effective immediately, are not legally binding. It is up to Member States to enforce the new requirements.
foodwatch raises alarm
The declaration follows a campaign by consumer organisation foodwatch urging the Commission to establish legally binding limits for MOAH in food products.
MOAH food contamination can occur via food packaging materials, food additives, processing aids, or via environmental contaminants such as lubricants.
The watchdog claims MOAH are toxic contaminants suspected to be carcinogenic and genotoxic, and as such, takes a zero-tolerance stance – deeming ‘any detectable presence’ in a food product ‘unacceptable’.
Last year, foodwatch published results from an analysis of 152 products from Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Findings revealed one in eight products tested was contaminated.
In response, the Commission requested these product categories be analysed. Monitoring concentrated predominantly on stock cubes, chocolate spreads, biscuits, and high-fat foods. Other food categories at risk could include infant formula, sauces, and bakery products.
EFSA’s opinion has not yet been published, but the Commission has decided not to wait. As of last Tuesday 17 May, all food products in Europe must abide by the new LOQs. Products that fail to comply risk be withdrawn from the market, depending on how stringently Member States enforce the Commission's rule.
According to food lawyer and regulatory specialist Cesare Varallo, the Commission’s decision to ‘move with urgency’ and ‘without a full set of data’ is unusual. EFSA’s opinion is expected by the end of the year.
Although effective immediately, Varallo expects the new levels to be ‘provisional’, suggesting that depending on EFSA’s opinion, the levels could well change.
No transition period…is that fair?
In the absence of a transition period, food operators are under pressure to ensure they comply with the LOQs.
If the new levels are applied ‘immediately and consistently’ across the industry, food lawyer Varallo is concerned the impact on manufacturers could be ‘devastating’: “It’s a tough move for industry,” he said, “especially in the catastrophic economic situation we have right now, with rising production costs and scarcity of oils.”
The regulatory expert continued: “It’s not easy to retrieve vegetable oils in general, but it’s even more difficult to find vegetable oils that are MOAH free at the moment since supply is very tight.”
foodwatch, on the other hand, believes the Commission’s decision to set new limits effective immediately was ‘absolutely’ fair to industry.
“In our last set of tests, we tested 152 products, 19 were contaminated (12.5%). This means that the vast majority of food manufacturers know how to ensure their foods are free from detectable MOAH,” Matthias Wolfschmidt, international strategy director at foodwatch, told FoodNavigator.
“The ones who are not dealing correctly with this issue are the companies who are trying to save money instead of implementing the necessary safety standards for consumers. This is not a new issue – they have been aware of possible contamination for many years and now action needs to be taken immediately.”
Trade association FoodDrinkEurope, which represents food and beverage manufacturers, was unable to offer specific comments as it is ‘still assessing this measure internally and consulting members’.
However, FDE did tell this publication it is committed to reducing the transfer and the occurrence of undesired MOAH in food: “Industry experts are trying to identify and eliminate sources daily.”
Enforced by Member States, not the Commission
The silver lining for food operators, according to food law expert Varallo, is that enforcement is the responsibility of Member States, rather than the Commission itself. There is a chance that the declaration will not be supported by national enforcement authorities.
“I would expect enforcement of course, [but] we cannot say at the moment in which countries we might see the first enforcement actions.”
foodwatch is dissatisfied with this more lenient approach, telling FoodNavigator it wants legally binding limits of MOAH in food.
“foodwatch demands that the only way to ensure the safety of consumers to be eating food that is not contaminated by MOAH is if the LOQ including the principle of non-detectability of any MOAH are legally binding,” explained Wolfschmidt.
Overall, of course, foodwatch welcomes the Commissions’ ‘recognition of urgency’ to have rules in place and to ‘not simply wait until the EFSA report is published’.
But since the watchdog has zero-tolerance for MOAH, it does take issue with the LOQs established.
“The technology exists to detect 1mg of MOAH even in plant oils,” said Wolfschmidt. “The rules should say that no detectable MOAH can be present in any foodstuff in the European Union.
“Therefore, the 2mg level in plant oils is too high. When we are talking about dangerous contaminants, any detection by valid analytical methodology must mean that the foodstuff must be taken off the shelves.”