Food Safety Focus (59th Issue, June 2011) – Incident in Focus

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Food Safety Focus (59th Issue, June 2011) – Incident in Focus

The Abuse of Plasticisers in Food

Reported by Ms. Janny MA, Scientific Officer,
Risk Assessment Section, Centre for Food Safety

On 23 May 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Taiwan announced that a plasticiser di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) was found to have been abused in 16 drinks. Subsequently, more foods were found to contain DEHP as well as other plasticisers, including di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) and di-butyl phthalate (DBP). Investigations revealed their presence in the concerned products was a result of illicit use of clouding agents containing the incriminated plasticisers. These clouding agents were formulated by two manufacturers using plasticisers in an attempt to reduce cost and increase stability. The FDA considered that the clouding agents might have been abused in five major types of food, namely (1) sports drinks, (2) juice drinks, (3) tea beverages, (4) fruit jam/syrup and fruit jelly and (5) powder and tablet supplement. Due to the incident, the Taiwan authority prohibited the sale of these products if they contained clouding agent unless safety documents could be provided for verification. In this article, we are going to talk about our responses to this incident.

What are Plasticisers and Why are They Found in Food?

Plasticisers including DEHP, DINP and DBP are commonly used in certain types of plastic products including food packing materials, blood storage bags and intravenous delivery systems to produce flexibility.

Food may contain low levels of these plasticisers due to their migration from food contact materials during processing or packing as well as from environmental contamination. However, they should not be added intentionally to food in any quantity.

Adverse Health Effects

The acute oral toxicities of DEHP, DINP and DBP are low. Long-term exposure to DEHP is found to affect the liver and kidney as well as the reproduction and development of experimental animals. DEHP is classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Compared with DEHP, DINP has lower toxicity. Chronic large-dose exposure to DBP was found to affect the reproduction and development and cause birth defect in experimental animals.

Some products containing plasticisers once available in Hong Kong
Some products containing plasticisers once available in Hong Kong

Actions Taken by the CFS

Following the Taiwanese announcement, the CFS has maintained contact with the Taiwan authority and promptly alerted the trade and implemented sales check for local availability when any affected products were found to have entered Hong Kong . The CFS also advised the public not to consume products that are suspected to be contaminated and have been exported to Hong Kong . In addition, the CFS has adopted a risk-based strategy and strengthened the collection and testing of five food categories announced by the Taiwan FDA for plasticisers analyses. The food samples collected are not limited to products from Taiwan . The CFS has also given due regard to reports of possible plasticizer contamination in other food products and took relevant food samples for testing. In addition, the CFS issues Food Alert as relevant in accordance with the notifications from Taiwan and our test results. Over the past two weeks, the CFS handled some 200 enquires from the trade and the public.

As of 14 June 2011 , a total of 205 samples were collected. No samples contained DINP exceeding its action level of 9 ppm for migration from food contact materials to foodstuff. However, as listed in Table 1, 33 samples (including seven sports drinks, one jelly, one drink premix, eleven fruit syrups/concentrates, one juice drink, one icy drink, one tea drink, eight cookies, one sesame oil sachet for instant noodle and one iceflake) were found to contain DEHP or DBP exceeding the action levels of 1.5 ppm and 0.3 ppm in food respectively. To protect public health, the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene, pursuant to Section 78C(3) of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap 132), issued several Section 78B Orders to prohibit from importing into and supplying within Hong Kong the tainted foods for which risk assessment showed that long-term consumption of such products may pose a health risk. The CFS will also include plasticisers in its routine surveillance programme.

Table 1: Summary of the testing results (as of 14 June 2011 )

檢測結果 Test Results
食品類別 Food type 不合格 Unsatisfactory 合格 Satisfactory 總數 Total
運動飲料 Sports drinks 7 9 16
果汁飲料 Juice drinks 2 39 41
茶飲料 Tea beverages 1 35 36
Fruit jam/syrup and fruit jelly
12 39 51
Powder and tablet supplement
1 2 3
其他 Others 10 48 58
總數 Total 33 172 205

Key Points to Note:

Advice to Consumers

  1. Do not consume any products known to be affected.
  2. There is no cause for undue alarm. Occasional intake of the affected products is unlikely to cause any significant health risk.
  3. Take a balanced diet so as to avoid excessive exposure to contaminants from a small range of food items.

Advice to Trade

  1. Do not sell and import the affected products.
  2. Ensure all food for sale should comply with the legal requirements.
  3. Source food and food ingredients from reliable suppliers and maintain a good recording system to allow source tracing if needed.

Further information