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The fight against mineral oil residues needs to focus on the whole supply chain

Mineral oil residues that seep into foodstuffs from packaging materials are unsettling to many consumers and pose a problem for the industry. The new, so-called Mineral Oil Ordinance, which the Federal Government has just signed off, is designed to ease the problem. At the beginning of March 2017, the Federal States and associations received a draft of this Ordinance with a view to obtaining their comments. At an international symposium held in Dusseldorf just a few days later, on 28 and 29 March, Akademie Fresenius devoted its attention to the question of how to deal with mineral oil residues and synthetic hydrocarbons in food. Numerous experts from the industry, the analytical field and the authorities emphasised the importance of this topic, the urgent need for the industry and the authorities to act and why more research and analytics are necessary to get a grip on this complex subject.

Mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH = mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons and MOAH = mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons) 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; MOSH accumulates in body fat and the organs, such as the spleen and the liver. The draft of the new Mineral Oil Ordinance is designed to commit manufacturers to protect foodstuffs placed in recycled boxes through using suitable inner bags or boxes with a special, barrier-effect coating.

MOSH and MOAH are omnipresent throughout the supply chain

Functional barriers, such as inner bags and films, are not sufficient to totally eliminate the problem. There are also a lot of other causes of mineral oil products in foodstuffs and ways in which these are passed on, e.g. lubricants, mould oils, detergents – or even simply from the local environment. Reinhard Matissek, Director of the Food Chemistry Institute of the Association of the German Confectionery Industry (LCI) in Cologne, called for the whole food supply chain to be taken into account. Traces of MOSH and MOAH were omnipresent throughout this chain, he stated. Whereas the experts involved in mineral oil residues in food originally concentrated first and foremost on the packaged end products sitting on supermarket shelves, more and more consideration is now being given to potential entry points during transport and storage. For example, transport containers and gunny sacks used to transport raw materials. In this connection, Lionel Spack from Nestlé Quality Assurance Center reported that his food company was currently working with its local cocoa and coffee suppliers directly in the countries of origin to improve the quality of their gunny sacks or to exchange these for other types of containers. Having said that, he also stated that a lot had already been done during the past 20 years; concentrations found in foodstuffs were now actually lower than in the 1990s.

Findings from animal trials based on MOSH

Konrad Grob of the Cantonal Laboratory Zurich reported on trials which tested the effects of MOSH on rats and went on to compare the results with those found in human tissues. The most important conclusion to emerge was that the concentration of MOSH in human organs which had previously been estimated based on animal trials had actually been underestimated by a factor of 100-1000 - in particular when considering the fact that certain MOSH were accumulated over longer periods of time (even a lifetime). When the high concentrations found in the human liver and spleen were used in rats, their organs increased in weight - which Grob put down to a reaction to damage. He, therefore, considered it possible that previous mineral oil contamination levels may already have led to gradual organ damage in certain individuals. Therefore, he recommended introducing thresholds for critical mineral oil products that are lower than those in force today.

Increasing pressure on the manufacturers

Matthias Wolfschmidt of the Foodwatch consumer protection organisation reported on the results of the campaigns carried out by Foodwatch and other NGOs to combat the contamination of food through mineral oil substances. He noted that the campaigns organised since 2015 had been crowned by success: This topic was now on the political, media and industry agenda. Last year, for example, “virtually all the French supermarkets committed to clear requirements vis-à-vis their suppliers”. Dealers in Holland and Germany were now following this example. 

Wolfschmidt also appealed to food manufacturers: Without a doubt, the task of producing mineral oil-free packaging and foodstuffs was extremely complex. Nevertheless, many products were found to contain little or no measurable levels of MOSH and MOAH - showing that this task can be resolved. Suitable tools were available to reduce the sources of contamination: “Technical solutions to avoid the migration of mineral oil residues into foodstuffs are ready and waiting.” 

Example: COOP in Denmark: Awareness has reached the food trade

Malene Teller Blume, Quality Manager at COOP Denmark, Denmark’s largest food chain, gave a report on the company’s own efforts and decisions to remove certain foodstuffs with problematic packaging from its product range. COOP has already gained experience through its ban on microwave popcorn packaging containing too many perfluorinated carbons (PFC). This campaign got a great deal of attention and positive coverage, Blume went on to report. COOP has also recognised the fact that the problem of mineral oil residues poses a real challenge. The company would like to see an increase in transparency and more regulations on the part of the national and European legislators in this area. 

+++ Additional date in autumn 2017 +++

International Fresenius Conference

Residues of Mineral Oil and Synthetic Hydrocarbons in Food

7 and 8 November 2017 in Dusseldorf/Germany

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Die Akademie Fresenius GmbH

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44379 Dortmund

Phone  +49 231 75896-50
Fax  +49 231 75896-53


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Rebecca Keuters
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