The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is inviting public comments on a proposal that limits ethylene oxide in food additives.

The suggested limit would be the same as in Europe to balance food safety with giving clarity and consistency to industry and enforcement officials.

Ethylene oxide can be harmful and is not approved for use in food. The chemical substance has multiple uses, including as a sterilizing agent and raw material in various products. When it is detected, the FSA and Food Standard Scotland (FSS) investigate and assess the risk on a case-by-case basis. 

There have been some incidents related to ethylene oxide and its breakdown product 2-chloro-ethanol in various commodities across the UK and Europe. This resulted in the EU setting a 0.1 mg/kg limit for ethylene oxide in all food additives in September 2022. 

Incident timeline
In September 2020, ethylene oxide was detected in sesame seeds from India. It was likely used to reduce Salmonella contamination. The substance was later found in other raw materials such as herbs, spices, calcium carbonate, as well as locust bean, guar, and xanthan gums.

It prompted the biggest food recall operation in EU history, according to the 2021 Alert and Cooperation Network (ACN) report. Recalls mentioning ethylene oxide are still being recorded in 2024, according to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF).

FSA and FSS advised businesses to do a root cause analysis to identify the source of contamination and to try to source products free from contamination. However, it has become tough to get certain food additives free of ethylene oxide, which has a knock-on effect on the food supply.

UK investigations suggest incidents are due to changes in the manufacturing process for some additives that have resulted in unavoidable contamination and are not cases of deliberate misuse.   

Alignment with Europe
A product withdrawal would be required for any food additive above 0.1 mg/kg. FSA and FSS should also be informed if any ethylene oxide is detected in infant formula.

If levels for ethylene oxide are set at 0.1 mg/kg, the current limit of 0.2 mg/kg for another eight food additives will also be revised.

“This proposal would remove divergence with the EU and provide clarity and consistency to the industry, something key stakeholders have been calling for. Furthermore, a consistent approach would aid the food industry in selling the same products to GB and EU markets,” said the FSA.

The consultation also includes four novel food and three food additive applications submitted for authorization and plans to remove the approval for 22 food flavorings.

Responses are required by March 25. Ministers will then decide whether or not to set the limit. A similar consultation has been opened by Food Standards Scotland, which closes on March 29.

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