Chemical hazards – here we go again

Fipronil is commonly used to get rid of fleas, lice and ticks but is banned by the European Union for use on animals destined for human consumption, such as chickens. It is thought that Fipronil was used in chicken farms to combat red lice, thus affecting the eggs of laying hens which were destined for human consumption. Although the FSA (UK) have advised that the risk to public health is “very low”, the WHO has warned that the pesticide is moderately toxic. Dutch food standards agency NVWA warns that fipronil can cause “nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, and epileptic seizures” although its effects are reversible.

chemical contaminants

Three primary sources of chemical contaminants affecting food processors are chemicals entering the plant with the raw materials or ingredients; chemicals used in the plant to support manufacturing processes; and chemicals used for cleaning and sanitation purposes. One could add pest control processes to this, since fumigation is a common practice in many sectors. Food safety programmes should clearly identify what may be used, how it must be applied, where it may be applied and the associated legal requirements.

This incident also raises concerns regarding the ability of food safety programmes to identify this kind of contamination. Chemicals users can ensure they control the potential for contamination. Identifying and managing chemicals that may be in raw materials and ingredients is more challenging for recipients, since control measures are out of their control.

Contamination of raw materials or ingredients remains a problem across the entire food supply chain. Contamination and adulteration both involve the presence of a substance that is not intended to be in a product. Adulteration is the deliberate and intentional replacement or dilution of the expected ingredient for economic gain. Contamination is unintentional and may be “technically unavoidable” due to some sort of shortcoming or lapse in control systems.

Contamination is generally predictable. Higher residues of arsenic can be expected in plants grown in soil that is itself high in arsenic. The application of pesticides may result in pesticide residues in plants, and risks from contamination are generally easier to manage or limit because they involve hazards that manufacturers should be aware of. The challenge is to be prepared for the unexpected incidents, such as the fipronil saga.

According to Markus Lipp, senior director for food ingredients at US Pharmacopeia, testing for the unknown to discover the unexpected, is a real challenge for analysts and risk managers. One of the best approaches to detect the presence of an unknown substance is to verify the identity of an ingredient rather than test for the presence of potential adulterants. In other words, account for what a product is – rather than what it isn’t.

In addition to the mandatory requirement to test raw materials (something we don’t do nearly enough of), food manufacturers should establish robust supplier processes, including visiting and inspecting supplier sites. While not wanting to create unnecessary audit bureaucracy, relying on proof of certification and raw material specifications may not be enough. Lipp reminds us, even audits may have shortcomings if suppliers deliberately hide unethical practices. ‘All food safety and food quality systems rely on the ability to predict and manage reasonably foreseeable risks and hazards. Prediction is very difficult when you don’t know what your substance is—and in the case of adulteration, only the adulterator has that knowledge,’ he explains.

Fipronil is a reminder that we should be vigilant and perhaps not as trusting of suppliers for the right reasons.

Author: Linda Jackson