Residues of mineral oil in food: Fresenius conference in Düsseldorf discussed the need for action and minimisation strategies

Mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) can seep into foodstuffs from food packaging materials made of recycled paper which may, for example, contain printer’s ink. The body can easily absorb MOSH and MOAH from food. These then accumulate in body fat and the organs, such as the spleen and the liver. The Mineral Oil Ordinance is intended to commit manufacturers to packing food in inner bags or to preventing food from coming into contact with the cardboard through using a film on the inside. However, there is still no information available as to when the revised ordinance will be adopted by German law. However, recycled board is by far not the only source of food contamination and mineral oil is far from the only material that passes from recycled cardboard into the food.

Koni Grob of the Cantonal Laboratory of Zurich looked back on over thirty years of experience in examining the contamination of food through mineral oil products and its avoidance whilst also considering the difficulty of achieving a positive outcome when faced with a problem of this nature. In Zurich, mineral oil hydrocarbons were first determined in hazelnuts back in 1989. These were found to be derived from jute sacks. Other foods were also affected, such as cocoa beans (chocolate), rice, oilseeds and coffee. A stop was put to these and many other forms of serious migration, including the usage of mineral oil products as anti-sticking agents for processing dough and confectionery products, for slicing toast bread and for spraying rice to improve its shine. Mineral oil, for example, also got into meat and eggs through animal feedstuffs. Migration from the environment (combustibles, lubricants and particles from road and tyre wear) may also be considerable. Back in those days, however, the topic roused very little interest, mainly due to the fact that measurements were difficult. In 2003, high concentrations of mineral oil were measured in breast milk. In the following years, far higher levels were found in human tissue than had been previously expected from looking at the results of animal trials. Nevertheless, not until the discovery of high levels in sunflower oil from the Ukraine in 2008 did the problem draw the attention of wider circles – with more laboratories then getting involved in analytics. Public awareness for the topic only really took off in 2010 when the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) addressed the topic of transition from recycled cardboard – after food contamination from other often much more serious sources had been eliminated. The topic then became the subject of scandalisation. As the toxicologists were unable to supply a widely-accepted method for assessing harmfulness, even decreasing concentration levels were simply decried. The discussion on recycled cardboard headed off in the wrong direction: Instead of striving to find a global solution for all of the substances found to migrate from recycled cardboard into food, the problem was confined to mineral oil. It appears that finding a solution to a problem is highly unlikely without being backed up by a scandalisation campaign. However, such scandalisation also leads to exaggerations, hectic and unsystematic (expensive) investigations and just draws attention away from the search for a more comprehensive solution.

Draft of the Mineral Oil Ordinance strongly criticised

Rüdiger Helling of the Saxon State Ministry for Social Affairs and Consumer Protection was critical of the current legislation and the draft of the “Consumer Goods Ordinance”, otherwise known as the Mineral Oil Ordinance. Confining the scope of application of the Regulation on Food Contact Materials to recycled cardboard is no longer in keeping with the times. Such a regulation simply has to include a definition of MOAH that is linked to the analytical methods to be applied. Due to the toxicological uncertainty of the various entry routes and interference with other, analogue groups of substances, a minimisation concept is the most obvious and fastest solution to strive for.

Matthias Wolfschmidt of the foodwatch consumer protection organisation also criticised the draft of the Mineral Oil Ordinance. In his opinion, the definition of “functional barriers” contained in the ordinance does not go far enough. It also defined “unjustified” exceptions from the obligation to use functional barriers.

Wolfschmidt demanded that the industry do more. Although the migration of mineral oil components into food is an extremely complex problem, it is not impossible to solve the task, as broad-based product testing has already shown. Minimisation instruments are now available for all sources of contamination. Wolfschmidt referred here to the “Toolbox” offered by the Food Chemistry Institute (LCI) of the Association of the German Confectionery Industry in Cologne. Reinhard Matissek, Head of the institute, had already presented this toolbox at the Fresenius conference.

LCI Toolbox: Aid to achieving optimisation along the whole process chain

The LCI Toolbox is a collection of data and reference information designed to allow food manufacturers to minimise contaminant content. It provides starting points for achieving optimisation along the whole process chain. The Toolbox is structured according to different entry routes: “Migration”, “additives/fortification products”, “contamination”.

Fraunhofer Institute designing prediction models to minimise the migration of mineral oil components

Romy Fengler of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV (Freising) reported on the status quo of a project directed at developing guidelines for minimising MOSH/MOAH migration for existing packaging solutions as well as providing a basis for new prevention strategies. To this end, scientists engaged at the Fraunhofer Institute are both working with barrier measurements as well as following up on the transport of substances from food packaging into food as well as within the food itself. They are examining food with different phase compositions in order to ensure the broadest possible transferability of the results. With a view to implementation, suitable test systems (food simulants, test conditions, barrier tests) are currently being established. The results of these experiments form the basis for modeling and prediction models in both 2D and 3D.


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