Overdue for many years? Calls for zero tolerance on mineral oil hydrocarbons in food as EFSA launches public consultation after ‘possible health concerns’

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Claudio Caridi
Image: Getty/Claudio Caridi

Related tags Mineral oil Mineral oils

The European Food Safety Authority has launched a public consultation on the draft scientific opinion on the update of the risk assessment of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food after EFSA experts provisionally concluded that mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) do not pose a health concern. However, they also confirmed that some substances in the group known as mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) are a possible health concern.

Mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) comprise a wide range of chemical compounds obtained mainly from petroleum distillation and refining. They are categorised into two main groups referred to as MOSH and MOAH. 

“For MOSH, adverse effects on the liver were observed in a specific strain of rat, but the evidence suggests that these effects are not relevant for humans. Therefore, we were able to rule out a risk for public health,”​ said James Kevin Chipman, Chair of the working group on mineral oil hydrocarbons. 

Experts also looked at two different types of MOAH, concluding for one that it may contain genotoxic substances that can damage DNA in cells and may cause cancer. For genotoxins like these it is not possible to establish a safe level.  

Little information is available on the occurrence of MOAH in food, so experts worked on two different predictive scenarios, both of which indicated a possible health concern using a margin of exposure approach.    

‘The known and the potential health risks of MOAH and MOSH in food can and must be minimized’  

MOH can enter food in many ways - through environmental contamination, use of lubricants for machinery, release agents, processing aids, food or feed additives and migration from food contact materials. They have been found in a variety of foods, which typically contain higher levels of MOSH than MOAH. The highest levels of MOH were found in vegetable oils and the highest exposure was estimated for young people, especially infants who have been fed exclusively with infant formula containing high levels of MOSH. 

The EFSA experts have recommended that more research is done to quantify the presence of MOAH in food and that toxicity data are collected to better assess the risks they pose. For MOSH, it is important to keep studying the possible long-term effects on human health, they said.

The consultation lasts until 30 April 2023. Once finalised, the EFSA’s scientific advice will help inform the European Commission and EU Member States consider risk management action. 

Back in 2021 consumer group 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. The European Commission subsequently set recommended limits​ on MOAH contamination in food and requested specific product categories be analysed for the presence of MOAH, including stock cubes, biscuits, and chocolate spreads.

For dry foods with a low fat/oil content of equal or less than 4%, 0.5 mg/kg of MOAH is allowed; for foods with a higher fat/oil content of more than 4%, 1 mg/kg of MOAH is allowed; and 2 mg/kg of MOAH is permitted for fats and oils. 

The limits were effective immediately but are not legally binding. Individual Member States can decide if they enforce the requirements. According to foodwatch, the technology exists to detect 1mg of MOAH even in plant oils. It therefore believes the rules should say that no detectable MOAH can be present in any foodstuff in the European Union and that the 2mg LOQ in plant oils is too high.

Foodwatch will take part in the EFSA consultation. It will continue to press the case for binding rules, it told FoodNavigator. “Only with a zero tolerance of MOAH in food can the EU ensure the absence of this potentially carcinogenic contaminant,” said ​Suzy Sumner, Head of Brussels Office, foodwatch international.

“Foodwatch tests have proven again and again that it is possible for the food industry to have no MOAH detectable in food, when tested to the highest analytical standards of the JRC. However, some companies are not meeting these standards. The legal obligation to use the highest standards of testing possible and to deliver food free from detectable MOAH has been overdue for many years.

“The long-term health implications of MOSH are not fully known but we do know they build up in the body. Unless they can be proven to be safe, the European legislator must rapidly apply the Precautionary Principle of the General Food Law and MOSH levels in food must remain as low as reasonably achievable.

“The known and the potential health risks of MOAH and MOSH in food can and must be minimized without any more delays and compromises.”

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