An international food safety body has set new rules on preparing bagged salads and said the chemical melamine that tainted Chinese milk is acceptable only in tiny amounts in infant formula and food.
The maximum amount of melamine allowed in powdered infant formula is 1 mg/kg and the amount of the chemical allowed in other foods and animal feed is 2.5 mg/kg, according to new rulings from the United Nations' food standards body, Codex Alimentarius Commission.
The Commission also decided that animal manure should not be used to fertilize lettuce and other fresh vegetables sold 'ready to eat' to avoid dangerous diseases. Contaminated water must also be kept away from bagged produce that is not heat-treated, the Codex experts said, fixing new benchmarks that could change production and harvesting norms across the world.
Melamine is a chemical used in a variety of industrial processes - including the manufacture of plastics used for dishware and kitchenware, and can coatings - and traces of it unavoidably get into food by contact without causing health problems.
However the substance is toxic at high levels. Such levels of melamine were found recently in infant formula, milk powder and pet food due to its deliberate and illegal addition to increase the apparent protein content of these products. Babies and children died as a result and hundreds of thousands became seriously ill.
'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 Codex 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.
Other decisions taken at the meeting included:
Hygienic measures for safer fresh salads and seafood
Fresh, leafy vegetables are part of a healthy diet and are grown under diverse conditions and marketed both locally and globally to provide year round availability to consumers. As these products move along the supply chain from the farm to the table, they can be contaminated by pathogens such as salmonella, e. coli, and hepatitis A virus.
The new Codex 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 foodborne 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 Codex measures will help to minimize the risks.
Maximum levels of 10 micrograms/kg were set for aflatoxins in Brazil nuts (shelled, ready-to-eat) and 15 micrograms/kg for shelled Brazil nuts (intended for further processing), while the Commission 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.
New methods to determine food content
The methods used for analysis and sampling are the necessary basis for food inspection and control. The new Guidelines adopted by the Commission 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 Codex Alimentarius Commission, run jointly by FAO and the World Health Organization, sets international food standards to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade.