Food processors and packaging companies still have reason for concern following the publication of a risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority advising on the migration of semicarbazide (SEM) from packaging into foods. The report shows that the chemical is definitely present in very small quantities in certain processed and packaged foods though it poses no immediate health threats.
The study looked at the occurrence of SEM in food packaged in glass jars and bottles and its scientific experts judged that the risk - if any - to consumers is very small both for adults and infants. A number of Europe's leading food authorities have subsequently advised that, on the basis of the information provided by EFSA, that the risk associated with eating foods containing SEM is very small, consumers should not change their current dietary habits and can continue to use all foods concerned including baby foods.
However, as a precautionary measure, the FSAI will work with other Member States to monitor the presence of SEM in packaged foods. In addition, the food industry is being instructed by the European Commission to instigate new packaging procedures, aimed at preventing the migration of the chemical into processed foods.
It is understood that semicarbazide is produced during the heat treatment of an approved blowing agent (azodicarbonamide) used to make sealing gaskets in the lids of glass jars and bottles and that it migrates from the gaskets into foods. Evidence to date indicates that levels of SEM in food range from several parts per billion up to 25 parts per billion in some products, which means that consumers would be exposed to extremely low levels in their food. Whilst the levels of SEM are extremely low, the EFSA believes it would be prudent to reduce the presence of SEM in foods using these sealing gaskets as soon as technological progress allows.
The EFSA's update follows a statement from 28 July, which announced that SEM may have been found in certain foods packed in glass jars and bottles closed with metal lids sealed with plastic gaskets. The foods concerned included fruit juices, jams and conserves, honey, baby food, pickles and sterilised vegetables, mayonnaise, mustard, sauces, and ketchup. EFSA concluded at that stage that as the toxicity of SEM is not well understood, further investigations into its presence in food and possible effect on human health should be undertaken.
According to Dr Iona Pratt, chief specialist in toxicology at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, whilst gathering of information on SEM is not fully completed, a clear preliminary finding is that the risk is very small and further scientific research will be undertaken to exactly define the level of this small risk.
"Consumers need to be informed of this issue, but we would stress that they should not be unduly concerned as the risk associated with eating foods containing SEM is very small. No immediate action on the part of consumers or retailers is required in relation to the consumption of baby foods and other foods packed in glass jars and bottles," said Dr Pratt.
"It has been recommended that a monitoring programme is put in place to ensure that industry implement alternative packaging solutions in a timely manner focusing on baby foods as a priority. In the interim, scientific experts concur that there should be no change to current dietary habits: consumers may continue to utilise all foods concerned, including baby foods."
In updating their risk assessment, EFSA scientific experts reviewed the most recent scientific evidence made available on the toxicology of SEM, the levels found in foods and estimated intakes of SEM by adults, babies and young children. The scientific evidence, including recent research commissioned by EFSA, showed that SEM has weak carcinogenic activity in animals and weak genotoxic activity (that is, it can damage DNA, the genetic material in cells).
In assessing the possible risks arising from the presence of SEM in baby foods, the EFSA experts highlighted that although not an obligatory part of infants' diets, baby foods in jars are widely used for reasons of convenience, quality and nutritional safety. With an excellent record of microbiological safety, they provide excellent protection against microbiological and other risks of contamination. EFSA have therefore advised no change to current dietary habits.