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Gasket chemical declared 'safe' by food agency

04-Jul-2005

Semicarbazide is not a threat to human health says the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) but the food industry still faces an August deadline for its elimination from packaging.

The decision, issued Friday, will provide little relief to the food and drinks industry and packagers, who face a deadline of 2 August to eliminate the use of a chemical that produces semicarbazide as a by-product.

The main source of semicarbazide in food is as a by-product of plastic seals used on the inside of metal twist-on-twist-off lids of glass jars that contain food.

The contamination occurs due to the thermal breakdown of azodicarbonamide, an agent used to foam the plastic gaskets.

From 2 August 2005, EU directive 2004/1/EC prohibits the use of azodicarbonamide in any materials that may come into contact with food.

Thiery Habotte, press spokesman for the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), said almost all of the organisation's member companies were in compliance. The few still making the conversion would be ready by the deadline, he said.

A spokesperson at the UK's Food and Drink Federation said the domestic industry has switched to sodium bicarbonate as the replacement chemical for azodicarbonamide.

The EFSA set off an international alert in 2003 after itissued a warning about the presence of the chemical in food and expressed concern that it might harm babies. The chemical has been shown to be carcinogenic in mice, but not rats.

"Once existing stocks of packaged foods are used up, exposure of consumers by this route will have been eliminated," the EFSA stated in its new research report issued on 1 July.

A spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency said the UK's industry had already eliminated the use of semicarbazide in gaskets in preparation for the new law.

The preliminary advice given by EFSA in 2003 was that the risk, if any, from consumption of foods containing semicarbazide, was judged to bevery small, not only for adult consumers but also for infants. However the EFSA said more study was needed on the chemical. Now the EFSA has concluded that the issue of carcinogenicity is not ofconcern for human health at the concentrations of semicarbazide encountered in food.

"The risk to consumers resulting from the possible presence of semicarbazide in foods - if any - is judged to be very small, not only for adults but also for infants," stated SueBarlow, the chair of the EFSA panel charged with examining the issue. "Although there are uncertainties in the risk assessment due to lack of full data at the present, these relate only to howto assess what is considered to be a very small risk."

In 2003 the EFSA found the chemical in imported food products made using flour in which azodicarbonamide was added as a dough-improver, a practice that is not permitted in the EU. Semicarbazide canalso be formed from the veterinary medicine nitrofurazone, which is banned in the EU.

Semicarbazide is reportedly formed as a reaction product of the action of hypochlorite on food additives such as carrageenan and on foods such as egg white powder. Semicarbazide may also be presentat background levels naturally, may be formed at low levels when some foods are dried, and may also derive from as yet unidentified sources, the food agency found.

In its July 2003 statement the EFSA said infants were at the greatest risk of consuming too much semicarbazide if they were fed ready-to-feed infant milk and baby food. The EFSA also found tracesof semicarbazide in fruit juices, jams and conserves, honey, baby food, pickles and sterilized vegetables, mayonnaise, mustard, sauces and ketchup.

The EFSA concluded that it would be prudent to reduce exposure to semicarbazide as swiftly as technologically possible but that it would be unwise to take any immediate actions on baby foods whichcould potentially have other detrimental effects on the health of babies.

The EFSA also called on the industry to begin finding a replacement of current packaging materials and sealing technologies for baby foods as a means of reduce the presence of the chemical infoods.

Nick Tomlinson, head of chemical safety at the UK's Food Standards Agency said the EFSA's conclusions will provide relief for consumers.

"The EFSA looked further at the evidence about semicarbazide and found that it is not a threat to public health," Tomlinson said in a statement. "This means that parentscan be reassured about the issue of semicarbazide in baby food jars."

After the EFSA alert was issued in 2003 lawyers in the US began a process to sue the food and packing industry.

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