EU introduces temporary fresh food ban

The European Commission has banned the sale of fresh goods contaminated with two chlorine substances. Paul Clarke reports.

The European Commission’s Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) announced in July 2012 a temporary ban on sales of fresh goods containing high levels of two chlorine substances. The action by this panel of experts followed discovery of residues of these substances in fresh produce and some dairy products in several countries, including the Netherlands and Germany. The Committee announced the temporary ban on sales of fresh goods containing levels of benzalkonium chloride (BAC) higher than 0.5 mg/kg and that any foods found with this level should be removed from the market. It had previously reached the same decision with a similar substance, didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC).

DDAC

DDAC is regulated under the EU legislation covering plant protection products: Regulation 1107/2009. It is a quaternary ammonium compound (QAC) that in the EU is both authorised as a plant protection product in ornamental crops and as a biocide for disinfection. Because these uses were expected not to result in any residues in food, no specific MRLs (maximum residue levels) were fixed related to these uses and in that case the default MRL of 0.01 mg/kg applies.

Although other causes cannot be excluded and are currently being investigated, a likely cause of the presence of these residues is cross contamination, possibly due to contact of the crops with surfaces treated with biocidal products containing DDAC and/or to its use to disinfect washing water in pack houses or to disinfect irrigation water.

BAC

BAC, unlike DDAC, is not approved under Regulation 1107/2009 but is covered by the Biocidal Products Directive (98/8/EC) within the product type "food and feed area disinfectants". The highest residue levels seem to occur in dairy products (up to 19 mg/kg in soft ice cream). It should be noted that BAC is not a single compound but rather a mixture of C12-16-alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides (also known as ADBAC), which might be present in different percentages.

Welcome from the industry

Freshfel Europe, the European Fresh Produce Association, welcomed the adoption of guidelines to deal with the presence of these products. It noted that the presence of QAC on fruit and vegetables had led to considerable disruptions in the trade after laboratories detected DDAC and BAC in various foodstuffs, including fruit and vegetables. Freshfel Europe pointed out that, while these compounds are mainly used as biocides (disinfectant/cleaning agent), in some countries they are also used as pesticides and in certain cases also as co-formulants in pesticides and biostimulants.

Freshfel Europe's Director for Quality and Sustainability, Frederic Rosseneu, said: “The swift and responsible attitude from the fresh produce supply chain, investigating all possible contamination routes and providing analysis results, has contributed to a fast response from the Commission and Member States. The adopted guidelines provide the industry with enough time to further investigate the exact causes of cross-contamination and discontinue any non-essential uses throughout the supply chain.”

In the coming months, he continued, Freshfel will co-ordinate further efforts to provide the authorities all necessary help to establish a long-term solution. To this end, a workshop was held in Brussels in October covering the various aspects of this incident and looking at ways to anticipate such emerging issues in the future.

Next steps

The SCFCAH has urged Member States to investigate possible sources of BAC and DDAC contamination in conventional and organic products. It warned that the potential risks to consumers are the same with both products, with high levels being associated with skin, eye and respiratory irritation, and allergies. For both substances, a temporary safety level of 0.5 ppm (parts per million) applies, pending further investigations into the various contamination sources.