At the its annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, last week, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted a number of new standards, including maximum acceptable levels of lead in infant formula and of arsenic in rice.
The commission was established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop harmonized international food standards, guidelines and codes of practice to promote safer and more nutritious food for consumers worldwide and ensure fair food trade practices. It also promotes coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Codex adopted a recommendation that no more than 0.01 mg per kg of lead should be permitted in infant formula as consumed. The previous standard was 0.02 mg/kg.
Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system, which can diminish their ability to learn.
Levels of lead in infant formula can be controlled by sourcing raw materials from areas where lead is less present.
For the first time, Codex adopted a maximum level for arsenic in rice of 0.2/kg and agreed to develop a code of practice to help countries comply.
Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, heart disease, diabetes, and damage to the nervous system and brain.
Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater and soil in some parts of the world. It can enter the food chain when it is absorbed by crops from water and soil, and rice can take up more arsenic than other crops.
Improved irrigation and agricultural practices can help reduce arsenic contamination — for example, growing crops in raised beds instead of in flooded fields.
Because of potential adverse effects on human health and possible contribution to the development of drug resistance, Codex is recommending that certain veterinary drugs not be used in food-producing animals in order to prevent residual amounts in meat, milk, eggs and honey.
The eight drugs addressed are chloramphenicol, malachite green, carbadox, furazolidone, nitrofural, chlorpromazine, stilbenes and olaquinadox. All of them are technically antimicrobials, but most of them are not currently legally allowed to be used in food animals — at least not in the U.S.
The meeting also covered a number of ongoing activities related to antimicrobial resistance, in particular the work of the WHO Advisory Group on Integrated Surveillance of Antimicrobial Resistance (AGISAR) in updating the guidance document on integrated surveillance and the planned update of the list of critically important antimicrobials for human use. AGISAR is also undertaking pilot projects on integrated surveillance in many countries around the world.
Pesticides and Additives
Even when pesticides are used according to best practices, low levels of residues can end up in food, so Codex has adopted recommendations for the maximum amount of pesticide in a specific food. For example, a limit of 0.02 mg/kg has been set for the weed killer diquat on bananas or coffee beans and a limit of 0.6 mg/kg in plums for propiconazole used to prevent mold growth.
Codex also recommended a large number of maximum use levels for specific food additives in various foods such as fresh pasta, frozen or smoked fish, frozen or fermented vegetables, and powdered infant formula, to assure consumers’ health.
Toxins in Maize
Fumonisins are toxins produced by molds growing on maize in the field or after harvest and negatively affect both humans and animals. Humidity, inadequate storage and insect damage can all increase the risk of these molds. Codex has set maximum levels for the presence of fumonisins at 4 mg/kg in raw maize grain and 2 mg/kg in maize flour and maize meal.
The commission has also adopted a new code of hygiene to help minimize contamination in spices at all stages of production. It includes recommendations on the location of production sites, personal health and hygiene, equipment, storage and transportation.
Codex adopted new quality standards for passion fruit, durian and okra, which include being clean, free from pests or damage from heat or cold, of a minimum weight and with appropriate ripeness.
For frozen scallops, countries agreed to recommendations including storage temperatures, hygiene and handling practices, labeling, and permitted levels of added water, phosphates and salt, which can increase the product’s weight and lead to unfair trade practices.