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Set maximum arsenic and mercury levels for infant cereals, say researchers

By Kacey Culliney , 23-Nov-2012
Last updated on 23-Nov-2012 at 12:34 GMT

A Spanish study has called for European rules on mercury and arsenic in infant cereal in light of high - in some cases ‘risk’ - levels found, particularly in organic and gluten-free products.

It also called for continued efforts in standardizing routine quality control and reduction of arsenic in these products.

The study, published in the journal of Food Control, investigated mercury and arsenic levels in 91 infant cereals from different manufacturers in the Spanish market.

Products sampled were from manufacturers - Nestlé, Milupa, Hero baby, Nutriben, Nutricia, Ordesa, Puleva and Sandoz-Sanutri along with two organic manufacturers – Biocrecimiento and El Granero Integral.

Organic and gluten-free ‘high’ levels

“Organic infant cereals based on cocoa showed the highest risk intakes of mercury, very close to exceeding the intake reference,” researchers said.

“Just the opposite, 95% of the organically produced infant cereals and 70% of the conventional gluten-free infant cereals showed an inadmissible risk of arsenic intake,” they added.

Findings showed that of all 91 infant cereals studies, 32 provide an inadmissible risk of arsenic intake.

The highest mercury content was found in formulations that include ingredients susceptible to contamination, they said, such as gluten-free and cacao-based cereals. The highest arsenic content was found in rice-based cereals.

“In general, the content of toxic elements found in infant cereals based on conventionally obtained raw materials was lower than in cereals produced by organic methods,” the researchers said.

“Therefore, manufacturers of infant formulations based on organic cereals should routinely monitor their products and carry out a more rigorous control so as to keep toxic elements at an absolute minimum.”

Calls for regulation

The study called for continued efforts in standardizing routine quality control and in reducing arsenic levels in infant cereals. “In addition, it is essential that relevant legislation be established and regulated by EC (European Commission) regarding these two toxic elements.”

It acknowledged that current food regulations in European countries, Commission Directives and Codex Alimentarius do set maximum permitted limits for total mercury and arsenic in certain specified foods, mainly fish, crusaceans and mollusks but not in other highly consumed foods by special groups of risk such as infants.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has put forward scientific guidelines on intake levels for both mercury and arsenic, the study said.

The researchers put forward maximum guideline values of 10 micrograms kg−1for mercury and 56 micrograms kg−1  for arsenic. These were based on upper limits established for both mercury (10.71-13.54 micrograms kg−1) and arsenic (56.6-1692.7 micrograms kg−1).

“Cereal products intended for infants require special attention and a more exhaustive control. Hence, it seems reasonable to ask that more efforts be made to control the raw materials used in the manufacturing process of infant cereals and to demand an EC regulation for infant cereals, especially in the formulations with more potential risk impact, such as the gluten-free based cereals.”

Mercury and arsenic

Mercury and arsenic are both toxic chemical elements that can poison and intoxicate humans upon consumption. Both naturally occur in minerals and some foods.

Researchers noted that infants and pregnant women are especially sensitive to these toxic elements.

Source: Food Control
Published online ahead of print - doi 10.1016/j.foodcont.2012.08.016
"Survey of total mercury and arsenic content in infant cereal marketed in Spain and estimated dietary intake"
Authors: R. Hernández-Martínez and I. Navarro-Blasco

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