Pressure on baby milk manufacturers intensifies over mineral oil traces

3 Aug 2020

Consumer watchdog Foodwatch is calling for EU member states and the European Commission to publish the results of official tests on the presence of potentially harmful aromatic mineral oil in baby milk and infant formula.

Mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH), are contaminants that can be found in food and food packaging. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has said MOAH could be mutagenic and carcinogenic, and manufacturers are required to keep levels ‘as low as reasonably achievable’.

Pressure on baby milk manufacturers intensifies over mineral oil traces

A common source of contamination is packaging made from recycled paper as these often use printing inks which contain mineral oil but food additives and processing aids can also be to blame, such as waxes and paraffins that are used as anti-caking or anti-foaming agents.

Non-profit food industry watchdog Foodwatch has been mounting pressure to make the results of official tests public after German food safety officials found traces of mineral oil contamination in products made by Nestlé, Rossmann, Novalac and Humana earlier this year.

The German authorities did not publicly communicate the results, but they were obtained by Foodwatch following an official request.

The Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Offices (CVUA) laboratory in Münster detected saturated mineral oils (MOSH) in all 50 samples examined and aromatic mineral oils (MOAH) in 14 of the 50 samples. A Stuttgart laboratory did not find any MOAH contaminations in the 17 samples tested but detected MOSH in 12 of the samples, said Foodwatch.

“We know that other tests have taken place and that the Commission has seen tests from France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however, despite our requests to the European Commission to make them public, the test results remain a secret and the contaminated baby milk products remain on the market,” said Matthias Wolfschmidt, strategy director at Foodwatch International.
In 2019, foodwatch conducted its own tests on infant formula and said it found traces of aromatic mineral oils in half of the sample, with affected products made by Nestlé, Novalac, Danone, Hero Baby and Nutrilon.

In response, Nestlé sent samples of the same batches to an independent ISO-accredited laboratory, which found non-detectable levels of mineral oils (MOAH), it said.
Aurélie Perrichet, executive director of trade association Specialised Nutrition Europe (SNE), said over the last months, SNE has been actively involved to support the establishment of an EU-wide risk management approach for mineral oils in infant and follow-on formulae.

“SNE supports a harmonized approach on the risk management measures […]. As part of the EU discussions between member states and the European Commission, an action level for MOAH in infant and follow-on formulae is under discussion, and SNE would support such an approach.

“However, it is worth noting that the analysis of mineral oils in food – and particularly in complex matrices as infant and follow-on formulae – is not yet fully established and validated,” Perrichet added.

Maximum levels are ‘absolutely possible’

In November 2019, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA carried out a rapid risk assessment following Foodwatch’s reports of contaminated infant formula. The EFSA scientists concluded that the estimated exposure for infants and toddlers was of possible concern for human health.

Foodwatch argues that since many foods contain no (MOAH) or MOSH even when analysed using the highly sensitive laboratory methods, zero levels are possible.

“These [zero] results can be found in practically all product groups, with the exception of very high-fat foods such as vegetable oils. And this demonstrates that it is absolutely possible - and a pure question of care and quality assurance from manufacturers - to produce food without detectable mineral oil contamination,” Wolfschmidt told The Ingredients Network.

Foodwatch wants the EU Commission to set strict maximum levels for mineral oils in all foodstuffs as soon as possible and to maintain the objective of zero tolerance for MOAH in food.

The civil society campaign group believes that unless the EU Commission sets legally binding maximum levels for MOSH and MOAH, there is no incentive for manufacturers to reformulate voluntarily as they would incur higher production costs, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

“For MOAH, suspected of causing cancer, there can only be zero tolerance - any detectable contamination in food is unacceptable,” said Wolfschmidt.

The European Commission is monitoring the situation and last month (23 June), the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed SCoPAFF) discussed the issue of MOAH in infant formula and follow-on formula at its meeting.

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