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Food Safety Focus (102nd Issue, January 2015) – Incident in Focus

Atropine and Scopolamine in Foods

Reported by Mr. Johnny CHU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section,
Centre for Food Safety

In December 2014, the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) received notification from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed of the European Commission (RASFF) that Holle Baby Food GmbH, a baby food manufacturer in Europe, had initiated a recall of certain batches of baby porridge because the products were detected with atropine and scopolamine at levels exceeding the maximum permitted level. This article discusses the occurrence, safety and regulation of atropine and scopolamine in foods.

What are Atropine and Scopolamine?

Atropine and scopolamine are alkaloids (organic basic substances) which naturally occur in plants of several families. The chemicals can be found in all parts of these plants and are responsible for the toxic effects of the plants. In fact, they play an important role in protecting the plants against being eaten by herbivores.

Plant extracts containing atropine and scopolamine have been used for centuries in human medicine. For example, atropine and scopolamine may be used to treat nausea and motion sickness, intestinal cramping, and for dilating pupils for eye examination.

Occurrence in Foods

In general, common crops grown for human consumption do not contain atropine or scopolamine. Hence, poisoning associated with the consumption of foods is usually the result of contamination of grain crops with seeds of the alkaloid-containing plants.

High concentrations of atropine and scopolamine have been found in some plants such as Datura species. They are widely distributed in temperate and tropical regions and may be present as weeds of cultivated fields. During harvesting of grain crops, their seeds may be accidentally harvested. Hence, they have been found as impurities in linseed, soybean, millet, sunflower and buckwheat and their products.

Datura metel flower Datura metel fruit
Datura metel is one of the Datura species that can be found in Hong Kong (Photos by courtesy of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department).

Public Health Significance

Once consumed, atropine and scopolamine are readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, quickly and extensively distributed into tissues, and excreted predominantly in the urine. Atropine and scopolamine have similar effects on the nervous system; they block the activity of acetylcholine which is involved in neurotransmission.

Atropine and scopolamine can induce a variety of acute effects, for example, dilated pupils, change of heart rate, dryness of the mouth, constipation, urinary retention, and flushed skin. Symptoms of short term effects usually occur in 30 to 60 minutes after consumption. The chemicals present will be excreted from the body and therefore there are no long term health effects.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established a group Acute Reference Dose (ARfD) of 0.016 μg/kg b.w. expressed as the sum of the chemicals. ARfD of a chemical is an estimate of the amount of a substance in food (and/or drinking-water), normally expressed on a body-weight basis, which can be ingested in a period of 24 hours or less without appreciable health risk to the consumer on the basis of all known facts at the time of the evaluation.

Regulatory Control

Currently, there is no international or national food safety standard developed for atropine and scopolamine in foods. There is also no specific regulation on atropine and scopolamine in foods stipulated in the Laws of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, all foods for sale in Hong Kong must be fit for human consumption.

Actions Taken

To protect public health, the CFS has immediately contacted the major importer of the products concerned in Hong Kong to initiate a recall of the products from the market. The CFS has also alerted the trade and the public of the incident. Besides, to ensure all products mentioned in the RASFF notification are not available in the market, the CFS has conducted checks on major local retail outlets and has not found the products available for sale.

Key Points to Note

  • Atropine and scopolamine are alkaloids which naturally occur in plants of several families.
  • Poisoning associated with foods is the result of contamination of crops with seeds of the alkaloid-containing plants.
  • Consumption of implicated products may cause short term adverse effects. Long term health effects are not expected.

Advice to the Trade

  1. The trade should ensure that the foods they sell or import are fit for human consumption and comply with legal standards.
  2. The trade should verify that their suppliers have controls in place to ensure that the raw materials they used comply with food legislation.

Advice to the Public

  1. Consumers should not feed infants and toddlers with the products concerned.
  2. If infants and toddlers feel sick after consuming the products concerned, medical advice should be sought.
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Last Revision Date : 21-01-2015