In an effort to help prevent dangerous contamination of food with melamine, a toxic chemical, the United Nations food standards body today set new limits for the amount of the substance that can be present in baby formula, other foods and animal feed without causing health problems.
The maximum melamine allowed in baby formula was set at one milligram (mg) per kilogramme (kg) and 2.5 mg/kg in other foods and animal feed, according to a news release issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), which along with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) jointly runs the UN Codex Alimentarius Commission.
Melamine is a chemical used in a variety of industrial processes, including the manufacture of plastics used for dishware, kitchenware and can coatings. Traces of it unavoidably get into food by contact without causing health problems, but the substance is toxic at high concentrations.
“Establishment of maximum levels will help governments differentiate between low levels of unavoidable melamine occurrence that do not cause health problems, and deliberate adulteration – thereby protecting public health without unnecessary impediments to international trade,” said Martijn Weijtens, chair of the Commission’s committee on contaminants in foods.
While not legally binding the new levels allow countries to refuse to allow the importation of products with excessive levels of melamine.
The Commission, whose 33rd session in Geneva is being attended by 500 delegates from about 130 countries, also came up with new hygienic measures for safer fresh salads and seafood.
The new measures provide specific guidance for production, harvesting, packing, processing, storage, distribution, marketing and consumer education to reduce food safety risks associated with these products. Guidance covers such aspects as the control of irrigation waters, cooling and storage and correct washing of hands by consumers.
The Commission also gave specific advice on how to control bacteria in seafood throughout the food chain. In recent years, there has been an increase in reported outbreaks of food-borne disease caused by bacterial species called Vibrio, which are typically associated with the consumption of seafood – especially oysters that are often eaten raw. The new measures will help to minimize the risks.
On aflatoxins, the Commission set maximum levels of 10 micrograms/kg for Brazil nuts and 15 micrograms/kg for shelled Brazil nuts, which are intended for further processing, while it also adopted a code of practice to prevent this contamination.
Aflatoxins are carcinogenic fungal toxins that can contaminate corn, peanuts and other food crops such as tree nuts under certain conditions.
The Commission also adopted new measures on sampling food for inspection and control analysis.
The new guidelines will make it possible to run tests to determine if foods are derived from modern biotechnology, to authenticate food varieties such as fish species and to establish the presence of allergens.
Agreement on the guidelines marks an important international consensus in the area of biotechnology where the commission has already developed a number of guidelines related to food safety assessments for foods derived from modern biotechnology.
The 47-year-old Commission sets international food standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. The results of its work form the Codex Alimentarius (Latin for “food code”), a set of international food safety and quality standards.
The standards, when introduced in national legislation, contribute to the safety of foods and to help guide international food trade.