The European Commission is recalling thousands of food items in several European countries after ethylene oxide was detected in a food additive used in a wide range of products.
The recall includes sesame seeds, psyllium, and locust bean gum contaminated with ethylene oxide. Locust bean gum is a thickener or stabilizer often used in ice cream products, chocolate, bread, and spices. Therefore, both conventional and organic items, including cereals, chocolate, biscuits, bread, crackers, and spices are being recalled.
Kimberly Fox, a food security project manager for a U.S.-based non-profit, has conducted extensive research on the anatomy of recalls both in her time at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University in Northern Ireland and in the United States. “Ethylene oxide is a carcinogen used to reduce the bacteria load in food products outside of the EU,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “The EU has zero tolerance for ethylene oxide, meaning the EU believes there is no safe level for consumers. Thus, all food products that contain or could potentially contain this additive must be recalled.”
There is controversy over this, as the food products potentially contaminated with ethylene oxide in this recall have a very low, and sometimes undetectable, level of the additive. “This means consumers would have to eat a lot of the contaminated food products in order for it to be a high risk to their health,” Fox says. “Thus far, the EU hasn’t identified the source of the contaminated products, which is not unusual in a large recall such as this, because the food supply chains are so complex with so many distributors, co-packers, and food processors involved in the food production process.”
To date, France, Belgium, and Denmark are following the recall action but have expressed alarms about the systematic recalls of all foodstuffs produced with a raw material above the legally set maximum residue level.
Foodwatch International, a European-based advocacy group, has been supportive of the recall, and would like to see more done. In a letter to the European Commission, Matthias Wolfschmidt, international strategy director for the organization, says that, in terms of toxicity, ethylene oxide represents a risk to human health and its findings show things may be worse than originally disclosed.
“It is a category 1B mutagen, category 1B carcinogen, and category 1B reproductive toxicant,” he said in the letter. “The list of over 6,000 products recalled in France includes products purchased in 2019. The situation seems therefore to have been going on for some time. The overall exposure of the population to ethylene oxide molecules is therefore probably higher than previously thought.”
Fox explained that, in the U.S., there is no zero-tolerance for this additive. “Rather, we have different maximum residue levels depending on the food type,” she says. “This recall is unlikely to impact the U.S. because the concentration of the additive in the contaminated food products in the EU is very low, and thus complies with U.S. regulations.”