EFSA publishes opinion on mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH)

07 June 2012

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published a scientific opinion dealing with the presence of mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) in food and foods packed in recycled paper. The opinion assesses the impact of human exposure through the diet to the diverse group of mixtures known as mineral oil hydrocarbons. It covers more than just packaging.
Experts from the EFSA identified two main types of MOH relevant for food safety: saturated and aromatic hydrocarbons. They carried out an assessment of consumer exposure to MOH. From the available data, low levels of saturated MOH were present in all the food groups included with some high levels found in ‘bread and rolls’ and ‘grains for human consumption’ due to their use, respectively, as release/non-sticking agents and spraying agents (used to make grains shiny). The presence of both saturated and aromatic MOH (though data are more limited for the latter) in dry foods including ‘pudding’ dessert mixes and noodles may be partially attributed to the use of recycled paper/cardboard packaging. Exposure to saturated MOH through the diet was higher among younger consumers than for adults and the elderly.
According to the EFSA, a significant source of dietary exposure to MOH may be contamination of food by the use of recycled paperboard as packaging material. It can be effectively prevented by the inclusion of functional barriers into the packaging assembly, according to the organisation. Other measures may include segregation of recovery fibre sources intended for recycling and the increasing of the recyclability of food packages by avoiding the use of materials and substances with MOH in the production of food packages.
According to the EFSA, the potential human health impact of MOH varies widely; so-called ‘aromatic’ MOH may act as genotoxic carcinogens (that is they may damage DNA, the genetic material of cells, as well as cause cancer), while some ‘saturated’ MOH can accumulate in human tissue and may cause adverse effects in the liver. The opinion identifies some potential concerns in relation to exposure to MOH through food. However, EFSA’s experts stress there are several uncertainties regarding the chemical composition of MOH mixtures to which humans are exposed and also the wide range of sources of human exposure. Furthermore, on the basis of new information on the lack of toxicological relevance for humans of previous animal studies, the temporary Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs) of some ‘saturated’ MOH present in specific food products warrant revision (PackagingNews, 7 June 2012).