EU experts meet to discuss problems with packaging chemical

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Tetra pak, European union, Nutrition, Food

A EU food safety committee is meeting in Brussels today to discuss
the contamination of milk and other products with a chemical used
by Tetra Pak in its packaging process.

The committee will also be discussing allegations by a consumer union that a wider range of food and drink products than previously thought are contaminated with the chemical, the Italian health minister has said. The meeting is being called at the request of the Italian government. Tetra Pak denies the claims. The new allegations indicate that the issue over isopropylthioxanthone (ITX) continues to put Italy's actions at odds with other EU regulators, who cite studies indicating that the chemical does not affect human health. With the continued publicity over the chemical, food companies are also facing a possible consumer backlash over their products. In a further move development, Italian regulators seized 1,400 more cartons of baby milk near the Frosinone airport, reported AGI Online, an Italian news publication. Other seizures by police were also carried out in Cassino, Broccostella and Vicalvi. The manufacturer was not specified. Italy's food safety regulators first detected ITX in some batches of the Nestlé products in September. The ink curing agent was found to have migrated through the packaging and into the milk. The packaging was produced by Sweden-based Tetra Pak. Tetra Pak says it stopped using ITX in the packing for the affected Nestlé products in October after being informed of the problem. ITX is used in the curing process during ultraviolet printing processes. Tetra Pak switched to using non-UV inks for the products. Italian authorities confiscated millions of litres of Nestlé baby milk last week, and got a court order to force the company into recalling about two million litres of its Nidina and Latte Mio brands in Italy. Nestlé extended the recall to France, Spain and Portugal. Dutch group Numico was also involved in recalling some of its products. Now Altroconsumo, the country's consumers union, alleges that nine other food and drink products on the market are also contaminated with ITX. However a Tetra Pak spokesperson says that eight of the nine products identified by Altroconsumo are not made using ITX and come from an entirely different plant from which the issue first began. ITX is not used in the flexographic printing process used for the eight products. "Tetra Pak contests the findings," company spokeperson Patricia O'Hayer said today in an interview with FoodProductionDaily.com. "We cannot image where the ITX could have come from. We would welcome any valid information that the consumers union can send to us." Meanwhile Francesco Storace, Italy's minister for agriculture, said yesterday he had sent the Altroconsumo studies to the EU's food safety agency as part of a dossier due to be discussed by an EU food safety committee today. In a press release translated and published by AGI Online, an Italian media company, Storace is quoted as stating that Italy had asked for the extraordinary meeting of the committee. Italy is apparently asking for "common measures, both in terms of control and measures to be taken, and that the communication aspect be given the due attention" according to AGI. The attention that Storace is giving to the chemical seems to be at odds with EFSA's advice that ITX poses no immediate danger to human health. "On the basis of the very limited data available today, the presence of ITX in food could be considered undesirable but it is not likely to present a health risk at the levels reported," EFSA said last week in announcing it was carrying out a risk assessment of the chemical. The Altroconsumo study alleges that nine food products using packaging by Tetra Pak is contaminated with ITX. The products include cream, milk and fruit juices made by a wide variety of processors. Altroconsumo is calling for the products to be withdrawn by their manufacturers, who include Parmalat, C.L.Milano, Milupa and Carrefour. Previously Tetra Pak spokeperson O'Hayer had said the company began reviewing its use of the curing agent throughout its packaging operations after Italy discovered the problem. ITX is not prohibited for use in food packaging by the EU, she said. It is also not listed on the World Health Organisation's prohibited list. Scientific research indicates that the migration of ITX has "no known health effects", O'Hayer said. Tetra Pak's testing indicates that the migration of the chemical through the packaging occurs when the product inside is a fatty substance, like milk. "There is a correlation between fat content and the likelihood of ITX migration," she said. Tetra Pak also uses the chemical for packaging for water, juices, ice teas. The additional testing revealed that no migration was occurring for most of those beverages, except in the case of some citrus and milk juices. Clear juices such as as apple, grape and cranberry do not seem to be affected. "The situation with some juices is more complex," O'Hayer said. "All clear juices had no migration issues. However citrus juices such as orange and lemon might be affected. We found that the higher the citrus content the greater the possibility of migration. It seems to be a function of the recipe." The use of ITX for the affected products will be stopped by January 2006, she said. The company uses the ITX UV curing process for between one to two per cent of its packaging operations. Italy had originally informed the European Commission rapid alert system about the ITX problem in September. However, regulators were unhappy that there was still some product left on the shelves and under a court application got a Italian judge to demand the Nestlé recall. The country also called on the European Commission for an inquiry into ITX. EFSA, the bloc's food regulator, said it would undertake a risk assessment of the chemical. Nestlé denies there was a safety risk to human health and said the recall was due to consumer concern about the products. Nestlé cited what it calls a broad scientific consensus that supports its conviction that ITX does not pose a health hazard. Nestlé also ran into difficulties with Italian regulators earlier in October. Italy's antitrust authority fined seven producers of baby formula, including Nestlé, a total of €9.7 million for price fixing. Last week Nestlé's chief executive queried the motives behind the Italian government's seizure of million of litres of its baby milk. On Friday the company released a letter sent by its chief executive officer, Peter Brabeck-Lemathe, who apologised to Storace for incorrectly claiming that a meeting between Italian authorities and Nestlé had occurred in July or August, when it really took place in September. He also said his statements did not imply there had been an agreement reached with Storace to keep the products on the market. The incorrect date implied that Italy had been late in informing Nestlé about the problem. In a speech to investors Brabeck-Lemathe had previously described the Italian seizure of the milk and the recall's effect on the company's finances as a "storm in a teacup". Storace said he is preparing legal action against Brabeck-Lemathe over the statements, according to reports by that country's media. While making the apology for what he described as a "memory lapse" over the date of the meeting with Italy's regulators, Brabeck-Lemathe also continued to question the seizure of the Nestlé milk products in the face of what he said was scientific evidence that the ITX levels found did not pose a health concern. "I am glad that the European Commission subsequently confirmed this at a press conference of 23 November," he wrote. "Consequently, if it was not a safety or health risk which triggered this spectacular and unjustified action, I must conclude that there must be other reasons." Like Nestle, Numico was also ordered by the Italian government to recall its affected products from that market. In Italy Netherlands-based Royal Numico announced a recall of small batches of its milk products under the brand names 'Aptamil 2 Liquid', 'Aptamil Soya' and 'Aptamil Babymil'. The recall involves less than 100,000 litres in total of the products and were marketed under its Nutricia brand, the company said. Numico, along with SMA Nutrition, were named by the UK's food regulator as having products on the shelves that used the same Tetra Pak packaging. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) also said it was "likely" other other food products in the UK made by other companies may also be contaminated by ITX. The FSA noted that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had given advice that the presence of ITX in food is not considered to be an "immediate" health risk. "On the basis of current evidence the Food Standards Agency is advising parents and carers that there is no need to change their baby's feed," the regulator stated. SMA Nutrition has not announced any recall. The company acknowleged on its Internet site that "concerns have been raised" about the presence of trace levels of ITX in cartons of its liquid infant formula following testing in Italy. Citing statements by independent experts and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that ITX posed "no identified risk to health", the company said its affected products were safe to use. The company added: "Parents can be reassured by expert advice that ITX presents no identifiable health risk and that baby milks sold in the UK are safe and wholesome." The evolving issue over ITX highlights the uncertainty surrounding current legislation in the EU over the food industry's use of packaging chemicals, a problem that is meant to be fixed under a proposed directive on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH), approved by the bloc's parliament earlier this month. Currently the EU relies on a negative list to regulate the use of chemicals. This means any chemical not on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) blacklist can normally be used for packaging food. While the food and ingredients industries successfully lobbied to be excluded from the main thrust of REACH, the industry will still be required under the directive to prove the chemicals used for packaging materials are safe for contact with products meant for human consumption. REACH would therefore switch the onus on to the package maker and food processor to prove that the chemical did not harm human health.

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