Several European countries have called measures adopted to deal with ethylene oxide in a food additive “disproportionate.”
In July, it was agreed all products containing the additive locust bean gum (E410) that is contaminated with ethylene oxide need to be withdrawn or recalled to protect the consumer. The additive is used in ice creams, meat products, confectioneries, and cheese and is produced using carob beans.
However, Belgium and Denmark expressed concerns with the systematic recall of all foodstuffs produced with a raw material above the legal maximum residue level (MRL).
Findings of ethylene oxide started in September 2020 with sesame seed products from India. The substance was used to reduce or eliminate contamination with Salmonella. In the EU, the use of ethylene oxide to disinfect foodstuffs is not permitted. More than 700 reports for ethylene oxide have since been posted on the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) system.
Member state pushback
At another meeting this month, officials from one country said it might not be able to continue to apply the agreed approach while another regretted the short time and pressure under which conclusions had been reached.
Country representatives said the European Commission had failed to quickly provide them with a legal statement to support enforcement action.
The Commission believes that even where ethylene oxide is not found in the final product above the limit of quantification, such products do not comply with food safety requirements. The potentially wide array of foods containing ethylene oxide-contaminated locust bean gum could cause cumulative effects from eating a variety of implicated items.
Experts from EU member states, Switzerland, Norway, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Commission including DG Sante and EU Reference Laboratories (EURLs) took part in the meeting to give clarification on regulatory and technical aspects to support enforcement action by EU nations.
Updated rules planned to apply beginning in January 2022 will include ethylene oxide controls for imports of xanthan and guar gum, spices, calcium carbonate supplements containing botanicals, and noodles.
The Commission said it was committed to reducing food waste but this cannot undermine food safety.
“There can be no compromise as food safety is a key prerequisite for a sustainable food system. While it is regrettable to discard food, it is essential that unsafe food should be removed from the food supply chain and discarded in accordance with relevant EU legislation,” according to a Commission statement.
Member states questioned the approach by which food is considered unsafe. The Commission agreed to further discuss the point that for composite products the ethylene oxide content would be diluted a few thousand times. This includes assessing whether there is a need for a changed approach to risk management in the future.
Action planned for Indian organic certifiers
The incident has also prompted the EU Commission to propose an update to the list of control authorities recognized for importing organic products into the EU.
Thousands of tons of allegedly organic sesame seed contaminated with ethylene oxide have been imported from India since late 2020 with some from firms monitored by official bodies. This has resulted in about 90 reports in the Organic Farming Information System (OFIS). Levels of contamination varied depending on the consignment but have usually far exceeded the maximum residue level.
A lack of response on the root causes of the failure of the system from the control bodies involved in the contamination and the inappropriate corrective measures taken by those agencies and the supervising Indian authority, jeopardize the robustness of controls and of the supervision, according to the Commission.
The draft act states five control bodies should not appear in the list of those recognized by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) in India. This means they won’t be able to certify organic product exports from India to the EU as companies cleared by them sent products contaminated with ethylene oxide to Europe.
More than 20 other certifying agencies will remain on the list. If the draft act is approved it will apply beginning January 2022.
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