Palm oil industry confronts food safety issue in HK biscuit contaminant episode

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 1, 2021 - November 07, 2021.
Palm oil industry confronts food safety issue in HK biscuit contaminant episode
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WHILE the palm oil industry has taken initial steps to address the presence of potential carcinogens in palm products, more must be done by stakeholders in the ecosystem, says the Ministry of Primary Industries and Commodities (MPIC).

“It is important to point out that the monitoring and surveillance of 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol esters (3-MCPDE) and glycidyl esters (GE) contents in the finished food products, including pre-packaged biscuits, are outside the jurisdiction of MPIC and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). The action must be made by the Ministry of Health (MoH), which has the authority to take action for any occurrences of food contaminant and fraud in the finished products,” MPIC says in response to a question from The Edge on whether the ministry has engaged with the Hong Kong Consumer Council on its findings showing the presence of carcinogens in a sampling of pre-packaged biscuits that included Malaysian brands such as Hup Seng, Jacob’s and Julie’s.

Note that MoH said in an Oct 27 statement that monitoring done by its Food Safety and Quality Division since 2015 for biscuits in the Malaysian market shows that the average level of acrylamide is below the European Union (EU) Commission Regulation’s 350µg/kg benchmark. It also noted that its risk assessment on carcinogens acrylamide and glycidol in food showed low health risk from biscuit consumption.

MPIC in its statement also encourages biscuit manufacturers to communicate with the Hong Kong authorities to reconfirm the sampling results.

“The Malaysian biscuits manufacturers should be sensitive to the requirements by the importing countries with regard to their local standards and specification of product to be sold in their local market. If needed, we are willing to provide technical advice to the food industries,” the statement says.

To recap, the Hong Kong Consumer Council two weeks ago announced that three types of contaminants — 3-MCPDE, GE and acrylamide — were detected in 75% of the 60 samples of pre-packaged biscuits tested.

Although the council did not in its official statement mention palm oil, an official reportedly linked the presence of the contaminants with the commodity.

To be clear, two of the three contaminants — GE and 3-MCPDE — are linked to palm oil. The third, acrylamide, originates from starchy foods cooked at high temperatures.

Acrylamide not related to palm oil

On this, MPIC says studies show that acrylamide prevalence is prominent with the increase in cooking temperature and time regardless of oil used either in the process itself and/or product formulation. It also points to inconclusive findings on the effect of oil types on acrylamide development as well as journal articles saying that frying in palm oil gave the lowest acrylamide content compared with other established vegetable oils. Thus, it concludes that oil compositions insignificantly influence the amount of acrylamide present in the products.

“On that note, it is very unfair for the Hong Kong Consumer Council to pinpoint palm oil as the main cause of high acrylamide content in finished products [even though] other oils may also give a similar impact. The authority and consumers must understand that the product characteristics, raw materials and the nature of cooking process play a more significant role in manifesting acrylamide in the finished products,” it adds.

MCPD esters and GE are substances formed when vegetable oils and fats are heated at high temperatures during the refining process. In the human body, 3-MCPD and glycidol are released when 3-MCPDE and GE respectively are broken down. Glycidol and 3-MCPD are potentially carcinogenic.

Also, poor-quality oil — oil that has broken down — has a high level of diglycerides, which will react to form 3-MCPDE during processing in the presence of chloride (found in water and some fertilisers) and high temperature.

GE and 3-MCPDE have been detected in edible oils and fats as well as foods made from them, such as shortening, spreads, fried products, instant formula and baby foods.

Among vegetable oils, palm oil has been found to have higher levels of 3-MCPDE and GE.

Be that as it may, local palm oil industry players question whether the contaminants in the Hong Kong Consumer Council’s sample originated from palm oil-based ingredients, given that they also appear in other vegetable oils and fats.

Indeed, MPIC in its statement points out that research shows that all vegetable oils that undergo the refining process will generate 3-MCPDE and GE.

Regulations on 3-MCPDE and GE deferred

The 3-MCPDE and GE food safety issue is not new and the industry has been taking measures to mitigate the problem since 2016, when the European Union determined the permissible levels of the substances in palm oil. On Jan 1, 2021, the EU enforced regulations to cap the level of 3-MCPDEs in vegetable oils and fats to 2.5 parts per million (ppm). Meanwhile, permissible GE is limited to 1 ppm.

Given that the EU is one of Malaysia’s major markets for palm oil, Malaysia responded with plans to introduce regulations on Jan 1 this year to limit 3-MCPDE and GE to no more than 2.5 ppm and 1 ppm respectively in refined palm oil. However, this has been deferred to Jan 1, 2023.

MPIC explains that the MPOB had formulated the Licensing Conditions related to 3-MCPDE and GE maximum levels in refined palm oil and its products to be enforced on Jan 1 this year, but industry members had requested for a deferment to Jan 1, 2023, to allow for some premium pricing for palm-based products and its fractions of lower 3-MCPDE and GE. It adds that, currently, any purchase or transaction of palm-based products is made via business-to-business arrangements between buyers and sellers.

Nevertheless, in the milling sector, a regulation banning the mixing of sludge oil and press fibre oil with CPO came into effect on Jan 1, 2020.

“As the custodian of the oil palm industry, MPIC through MPOB has taken proactive measures since 2009 to conduct research and development (R&D) activities in tackling food safety issues associated with 3-MCPDE and GE in palm oil. In the case of palm oil, the presence of chloride in CPO is found to be the precursor of 3-MCPDE when the oil undergoes refining at elevated temperatures. The CPO washing has shown promising results in reducing chloride content in CPO. As for GE, the contaminants can be mitigated through post-refining at lower temperature,” says MPIC.

The government has also given grants amounting to RM50 million (of which RM32.4 million has been distributed) for the industry to carry out commercial trails in addressing the issue of 3-MCPDE and GE in palm oil.

Industry players say the palm oil produced by Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-certified producers that export to the EU have complied with the requirements there.

But that does not mean palm oil exports to other markets should be overlooked.

“The shocker for the palm industry will be that it is not just the EU or Western markets asking, but also some in Asia - where food safety has become of heightened concerned,” says Khor Yu Leng, a palm oil researcher and geo-economist, adding that some see this health concern dwarfing the environmental and labour issues faced by the palm oil industry.

Palm oil industry veteran and vice-president of the Malaysian Oil Scientists and Technologists’ Association (MOSTA) M R Chandran says that although the Codex Alimentarius — or the “Food Code” adopted by the Food & Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization — has not established permissible 3-MCPDE and GE levels, the palm oil industry should take action to reduce these contaminants in refined palm oil.

“It should target to reduce 3-MCPDE to well below the EU-prescribed level of 2.5 ppm. In fact, the prescribed 2.5 ppm for palm oil and 1.25 ppm for locally produced oils such as soybean and rapeseed oils may become a point of differentiation and discrimination between palm oil and locally produced oils in the EU and should serve as a challenge to the Malaysian palm oil industry to reduce 3-MCPDE levels significantly,” he says.

MPIC says findings by the Hong Kong consumer council must be taken seriously by the palm oil industry and the latter should not delay mitigating 3-MCPDE and GE any further.

“Food manufacturers must make a demand for palm oil containing lower 3-MCPDE and GE [levels] from the suppliers so that their products can be accepted by consumers, especially overseas. Similarly, refineries should be firm in requesting that the mills supply CPO with lower chloride content (2.0 ppm) in enabling them to reduce 3-MCPDE in refined palm oil. The issue of 3-MCPDE and GE in palm oil will no longer be a concern if all parties understand their role in ensuring palm oil meets high quality and safety standards,” it says.

 

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