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This report describes potential emerging food safety risks (described as emerging issues) identified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) in 2018 along with the ongoing food safety issues monitored during this period.
Food safety risks can emerge when new hazards are identified or if new information comes to light about an existing food safety hazard, such as increased exposure.
Identifying and monitoring emerging issues enables FSANZ to better forecast and predict possible food safety risks, and develop appropriate measures to manage the identified risks if required.
During 2018, FSANZ identified one emerging issue (microplastics in food) and we archived ten ongoing issues. A watching brief on seven ongoing food safety issues was maintained.
FSANZ maintains a distributed system for the identifying and managing emerging issues (see Figure 1). Issues are identified by FSANZ officers from a range of sources including the scientific literature, traditional and social media, international organisations and agencies, and public and industry consultations.
The Senior Science and International Group (SSIG), comprising senior scientists and topic experts, operates as a clearing house for issues identified. SSIG provides advice to the agency on the best approaches for further investigation and management of identified issues. Management will be case specific and may include additional data and information collection and maintaining a watching brief on the issue.
Issues are archived from the emerging and ongoing issues system when their management is subsumed within another process, for example a standards development process. They may also be archived when there is no further action required following the issue’s investigation.
Figure 1: Emerging and ongoing issues management in FSANZ
Emerging food safety issues
Microplastics in the food supply
Microplastics in the food supply was the only emerging food safety issue identified by FSANZ in 2018.
Microplastics are generally considered to be small plastic particles less than about 5mm in size. Primary microplastics are small to begin with, such as microbeads that are added to personal care products. Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, start off as larger plastic items, such as plastic bags, but degrade into microplastic particles over time.
Recently, there’s been an increasing interest in the effects of microplastics pollution within both the scientific community and the public domain. Media reports have been looking at microplastics pollution of the environment, especially the marine environment, and possible contamination of the food supply.
Much of the research attention so far has been on the marine environment. Plastic litter can enter our seas and oceans, where it never completely breaks down. Instead, it ‘breaks up’ into smaller and smaller particles eventually becoming microplastics. The UV radiation from sunlight contributes to this process of degradation.
Light and buoyant microplastics can travel great distances on our oceans’ currents. They can be found at the oceans’ surface, on the beaches, in arctic sea ice and deep sea sediments. Microplastics are eaten by fish, seabirds and other marine life, who mistake these for food. Once eaten by aquatic animals, they can potentially become part of the human food chain.
But this may not be the only way microplastics can enter our food chain. Studies have looked at their possible presence in sea salt, honey, beer, bottled water, organic fertilisers used on backyard gardens, and even in indoor dust settling on our meals.
The scientific evidence on potential exposures and health risks of microplastics in the food supply is still evolving. However the available scientific studies and reports suggest that:
Human exposure to microplastics from eating finfish is likely to be negligible. This is because the microplastics are found in the gills, liver and intestines of the finfish, which are organs that are not typically eaten.
Eating shellfish is a possible route of human exposure because bivalves are eaten without the removal of the gastrointestinal tract. However this exposure is also expected to be very low.
Absorption of intact plastic particles from the gut is likely to be very limited (≤0.3 %). In addition because of the small mass of plastic consumed it is expected that there is unlikely to be significant increases in exposures to environmental chemicals such as PCBs, PAHs or bisphenol A that may adsorb to the plastic surface.
In light of this information, our current view is that plastic contamination of the food chain is unlikely to result in any immediate health risks to consumers. This view is supported by EFSA, which considers that while further work is required, it seems unlikely microplastics are harmful to consumers.
FSANZ will continue to maintain a watching brief on this issue and consult with our international counterparts on any new developments in this area. This will be listed as an ongoing food safety issue during 2019.
Ongoing food safety issues
FSANZ continued to actively investigate or maintain a watching brief for seven ongoing food safety issues (Table 1)
Table 1: Ongoing food safety issues in 2018
A description of the issues and steps taken by FSANZ
to address the issue
Antimicrobial agents are essential drugs for human and animal health. However, the continuing emergence, development and spread of pathogenic microorganisms that are resistant to antimicrobials are a cause of increasing concern.
FSANZ has recently commenced a project on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the food supply chain. The project objectives are to define the role of FSANZ in assessing AMR risk in a multi-agency One-Health regulatory environment and establish a framework to assess the risks of AMR in the food supply chain. FSANZ’s project is consistent with and complements the overall Australian Government effort (Link to www.amr.gov.au) to contain AMR.
Arsenic in rice
Arsenic may be present in foods due to its occurrence in water, air and soil arising from natural occurrence or industrial processes.
The inorganic form is of most concern for adverse effects in humans. Due to these possible effects its level should be kept as low as achievable. FSANZ has worked with the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to survey levels of inorganic arsenic in rice and rice-based products. The survey will provide FSANZ with up to date data indicating whether the current limits for arsenic in the Food Standards Code need to be reviewed, particularly whether to set limits for rice-based products for infants and toddlers such as infant formula, infant food, and if so, to update our consumer advice.
3-monochloro-propandiol and glycidyl esters
Glycidyl esters (GE) and 3-monochloro-propandiol (3-MCPD) esters occur in some foods as a by-product of the refining process for oils and fats. FSANZ is aware of potential health concerns with these contaminants.
FSANZ is working with regulatory bodies worldwide to investigate whether these contaminants pose any risk to consumers. FSANZ has worked with the New Zealand MPI to survey levels of GEs and 3-MCPD esters in oils and other foods in the Australian and New Zealand food supply. The survey will provide FSANZ with information on an acceptable analytical method, and on how levels compare with those measured internationally.
Glutamates in food
Glutamic acid is an amino acid, a building block of proteins, naturally produced in humans and occurring in, for example, tomatoes, soy sauce or certain cheeses. Glutamic acid and its salts (E 620-625) commonly referred to as glutamates, are permitted food additives in Australia and New Zealand. They are added to a wide range of foods to enhance flavour by giving them a “savoury” or “meaty” taste. There is currently no established acceptable daily intake (ADI) for glutamate as a food additive in the European Union, Australia and New Zealand or by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). As a result, the intake of glutamate as a food additive in food is not considered to pose a health concern.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) re-assessed the safety of glutamates used as food additives and derived a group acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 30 mg/kg body weight per day for glutamate. This safe level of intake is based on the highest dose at which scientists observed no adverse effects on tested animals in toxicological studies. EFSA recommended that the European Commission considers revising the maximum permitted levels, in particular, in food categories contributing the most to the overall exposure to glutamic acid and its salts: fine bakery wares, soups and broths, sauces, meat and meat products, seasoning and condiments and food supplements.
FSANZ has published its current understanding on the effect of glutamate as a food additive raised by EFSA. FSANZ has reviewed the opinion published by EFSA and determined no changes are needed to the Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code.
Hepatitis A virus in ready-to-eat berries
Transmission of hepatitis A in association with the consumption of ready-to-eat berries and berry products has emerged in recent years in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada and the USA.
FSANZ and the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have jointly prepared guidelines on thermal inactivation of hepatitis A virus in berries. FSANZ and the NZ MPI are collaborating on a joint research project investigating thermal inactivation of hepatitis A virus in berries.
Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances
FSANZ has completed its review of the literature and recommended tolerable daily intakes (TDIs) for PFOS and PFOA. There was insufficient toxicological and epidemiological information to justify establishing a TDI for PFHxS. In the absence of a TDI for PFHxS, FSANZ recommends that applying the TDI for PFOS to PFHxS will be protective of public health. FSANZ proposed trigger points for investigation that could be employed by state and territory food jurisdictions when analysing PFAS in foods to identify when further investigation of a food may be required.
No recent risk assessment issues have been identified that requires consideration by FSANZ. FSANZ is awaiting the risk assessment conclusions from the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives.
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Archived food safety issues
Ten ongoing issues were identified for archiving or management through other processes in 2018 (Table 2).
Table 2: Ongoing food safety issues identified for archiving or other management through other processes
Acrylamide in food
FSANZ investigated acrylamide concentrations in a broad range of foods and dietary exposure for Australian consumers as part of the 24th Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS) Phase 1 (2014). The study found that the levels of acrylamide were generally lower than, or comparable to, those reported in previous Australian and international surveys. However, estimated dietary exposures were consistent with those considered to be of possible human health concern internationally.
FSANZ is undertaking a number of risk management measures to reduce dietary exposure to acrylamide. These include working with industry, as part of international efforts, to encourage improvements in food production methods to reduce acrylamide formation. FSANZ has also published information for consumers on food preparation and cooking practices to reduce dietary exposure to acrylamide.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in the lining of some food and beverage packaging to protect food from contamination and extend shelf life. It’s also used in non-food products. Small amounts of BPA can migrate into food and beverages from containers.
Some studies have raised potential concerns that BPA exposure may cause health problems. However the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that there is no health or safety issue at the levels people are exposed to.
In September 2018, the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) released the final report of a comprehensive two-year rodent study examining the potential health effects of BPA. This study was designed to look at the effects of BPA following chronic and/or early life exposure in two different groups of rats. The findings of this study are consistent with previous conclusions that there are no public health and safety concerns at the levels of BPA people are exposed to in food.
Issues related to caffeine in sports foods will be managed through the review of sports foods.
Folic acid and gene mutation
In May 2018, FSANZ consulted with Dr Debra Kennedy –a clinical geneticist and the director of Mothersafe. She advised that, from limited data, there was no evidence of a risk to public health from circulating unmetabolised folic acid. See NSW government advice. See also US CDC advice.
No recent risk assessment issues have been identified that requires consideration by FSANZ. In a FSANZ survey of coffee (2008) Furans were detected in some samples, but the levels were considered to be low and consistent with those reported in other comparable surveys both in Australia and overseas.
Hormone growth promoters
Permission and conditions for use are managed by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). FSANZ manages food safety issues related to hormone growth promoters through the established MRL process.
High levels of iodine in food
Findings of the Implementation Subcommittee for Food Regulation Survey of iodine in seaweed and seaweed products found iodine levels in seaweed varied between red and brown seaweed but were generally higher in brown seaweed. Iodine concentrations in wakame and nori seaweed and seaweed containing products were generally low. Some other dried seaweed types had high iodine levels and were considered to be unsafe for human consumption. For those seaweed products considered to be unsafe, the relevant jurisdiction was advised for appropriate follow up action. The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources also added brown algae/seaweed vegetables to the imported food ‘risk list’ and is monitoring at the border to ensure that only products with safe levels of iodine are imported.
A number of intense sweeteners are approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. There are ongoing safety concerns raised by consumers with a particular focus on aspartame.
FSANZ’s comprehensive pre-market assessments and surveys of intense sweeteners have found that there are no safety concerns for consumers and dietary exposure is less than the established acceptable daily intakes for each intense sweetener.
FSANZ is collaborating with NZ MPI in the scoping of an analytical survey for intense sweeteners.
No recent risk assessment issues have been identified that requires consideration by FSANZ. A FSANZ survey of added colours (2008) provides significant reassurance that there is no public health and safety risk from the consumption of foods containing added colours as part of a balanced diet.
No recent risk assessment issues have been identified that requires consideration by FSANZ.