European countries are facing more ethylene oxide related recalls after the substance was detected in a food additive used in a range of products.
Belgium first raised the alarm in September 2020 about ethylene oxide in products from India with sesame seeds. These related recalls are still continuing with thousands of conventional and organic items with long shelf life dates such as cereals, chocolate, biscuits, bread, crackers, spices and bagels affected.
The substance was used to reduce or eliminate microbiological contamination with Salmonella. The use of ethylene oxide for disinfection of food is not permitted in Europe.
Ethylene oxide was also recently found in the additive locust bean gum, which is mainly a thickening agent or stabilizer. It is used in foods including ice cream, breakfast cereals, meat products, confectionery, fermented milk products and cheese.
The European Commission held three meetings with food and feed crisis coordinators in member states with two in late June and one this past week.
Experts said that there is no safe level of exposure for consumers in products that contain the additive known to be contaminated with ethylene oxide and any level people may be faced with presents a potential risk. This means food or feed businesses who have put such products on the EU market need to withdraw and recall them.
Belgium and Denmark said they would go along with this action but expressed concerns with the systematic recalls of all foodstuffs produced with a raw material above the legally set maximum residue level (MRL).
Both nations were worried about the zero tolerance approach applied for ethylene oxide and considered it was not in line with European regulations on the follow-up of potentially contaminated food and feed.
Concern for different national approaches
Campaign group Foodwatch welcomed the EU-wide approach after noticing differences between national agencies and discussions about stopping the recall process for products that show a level below the detection limit of 0.02 milligrams per kilogram for items manufactured before June 14, 2021.
While consumption of foods containing ethylene oxide doesn’t pose an acute risk to health, there is an increased risk if contaminated foods are consumed over a long period of time with officials not certain when contamination started.
Green party members of the European Parliament (MEPs) wrote to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, and Sandra Gallina, Director General for Health and Food Safety (DG Sante), before the mid-July meeting asking the EU not to accept that products contaminated by a banned substance are sold within its common market and to take the precautionary principle approach.
Following an EU Commission call for data on ethylene oxide findings, 87 non-compliances were found from more than 650 analyses. All but three of these were reported by one country and included sesame seeds, spices and dried vegetables from India as well as sesame and sunflower seeds from other countries.
In mid-June, the General Directorate for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) in France said it was informed about the use of ethylene oxide in an additive used in ice cream with recalls affecting brands including Nestlé, Mondelez and Picard.
Authorities in Luxembourg said checks on the market also revealed some food supplements were contaminated with ethylene oxide.
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