A number of European countries have again expressed concerns about how the ethylene oxide contamination incidents are being handled.

Several nations highlighted the high burden of required action as more products are found to be contaminated at low levels from different origins and described it as “no longer manageable.”

A European Union harmonized approach was agreed on in 2021 and while it is supported and followed by the majority of reporting countries, it is not fully applied in practice by all of them. This led to some officials questioning whether there really was a harmonized approach and anger at the non-uniform implementation.

The EU position is that products containing the additive locust bean gum contaminated with ethylene oxide need to be withdrawn or recalled to protect the consumer. It had already been called “disproportionate” with certain countries unhappy with the arrangements, which have led to thousands of products being recalled.

Zero tolerance approach criticized
The problem started in September 2020 with sesame seed products from India. In the EU, the use of ethylene oxide to disinfect foodstuffs is not permitted. In 2020 most RASFF reports related to sesame seed products, but in 2021 a variety of items were reported, including locust bean gum, guar gum and xanthan gum from Turkey, food supplements and spices. There have been close to 50 RASFF reports so far this year because of ethylene oxide.

Product recalls are being expanded

The latest meeting, in January, included experts on pesticide residues, additives and feed from EU countries, Norway, Switzerland, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), DG Sante and EU Reference Laboratories (EURLs).

Several EU member states highlighted problems because of different approaches. Information was provided on a RASFF-notified product that was recalled from consumers in one EU country but not in another. Another EU country had a similar experience for a ready-to-eat meal.

Some EU countries said they were mainly following up on RASFF reports but there was no or a limited amount of samples being taken under their own monitoring programs.

The Association of Producers of Carob Bean Gum (INEC) said it was “very concerned” about the incident with members doing additional analyses and controls to ensure that no carob bean kernels or pods entering the EU were treated with ethylene oxide.

Traceability or detectability?
For composite and processed foods, some countries are using a risk assessment approach from a German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) opinion or a calculated ethylene oxide maximum residue level based on the proportion of the ingredients in the composite product and comparing it with ethylene oxide presence to assess compliance.

A recent recall due to ethylene oxide

There was also concern about the lack of a level playing field in the region for EU manufactured products compared to imports. While for domestic products, non-compliant ingredients can be traced back, it is not possible for imported items.

An EU Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (PAFF) Committee that deals with pesticide residues is set to hear feedback on the ethylene oxide situation at its next meeting on Feb. 22 and 23.

A number of import measures have been taken by the EU Commission with updated regulation applying beginning in early January. However, a temporary arrangement has since been reached to provide a transitional period until Feb. 17 to exempt newly affected imported products from needing a health certificate if they undergo 100 percent sampling and lab analysis at border control posts.

Discrepancies in the analytical results for ethylene oxide from various labs in the EU and other countries have also been reported.

Traces of 2-chloro-ethanol (2CE) have been found in calcium carbonate, which is often used in food supplements, but it is unclear if contamination was from ethylene oxide use.

Businesses in the supplements sector are worried about the lack of clarity on testing results for ethylene oxide levels on products, according to a paper published in 2021 by the European Federation of Associations of Health Products Manufacturers (EHPM).

The group said detection of 2-chloro-ethanol may not be an indicator of ethylene oxide contamination as assumed and could come from other sources. It urged the EU Commission to review its approach to managing the incident.

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