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The children’s breakfast. A common daily scene. Rather less banal is the fact that by eating their cereal, our little ones unwittingly ingest a host of undesirable chemical products, including mineral oils. Present in the cardboard box, these oils pass through the packaging and into our foods. A process called “migration.”
Dr Koni Grob works at the cantonal laboratory of Zurich. For the past 15 years, he has monitored the presence of mineral oils in our foods. This world-renowned specialist in the migration of chemicals from packaging was the first to have perfected a method for the detection of these oils.
Koni Grob, Cantonal Laboratory of Zurich: Let’s take a package, any package, like this one. To give you an idea of scale, this package contains around two drops of mineral oils. And I ask you: Who wants to eat that? I don’t, in any case!
Rice, pasta, frozen foods, corn flakes, biscuits…mineral oils infiltrate everything. And consumer protection organizations are getting increasingly angry.
Mathieu Fleury, Secretary General of the FRC (Federation of Consumers for French-Speaking Switzerland): The migration [of chemicals] from packaging to foods has been an issue of concern for years. We had bisphenol, we had a whole series of successive scandals. Now a new set of issues is emerging, with regard to mineral oils. Substances that are completely inappropriate for consumption. They’re mixed in with our foods. Something must be done. It’s completely unacceptable!
In Switzerland, the crisis broke out in February. Journalists from the German-language programme Kassensturz bought 21 everyday products, packaged in cardboard, and had them analysed. Based on toxicological studies carried out by the World Health Organization, there shouldn’t be any more than 0.6 mg of mineral oil for every kilo of food. However, 16 of the 21 samples analysed by Koni Grob exceeded this value.
For instance, in K Classic, 1.8 mg of mineral oil per kilo was found—three times the recommended maximum dose. This Maizena Express contained 5.5 mg of oil. Nearly 10 times too much. And the Combino Tagliatelle pasta contained 34 mg of mineral oil per kilo—that’s 56 times too much.
Simply looking at it, a cardboard package appears impermeable. But at the microscopic level, that’s not at all the case. On the one hand, molecules from the food can migrate to the exterior of the package. On the other, and this is what’s worrying, elements from the packaging, such as the famous mineral oils or other chemicals, migrate to the interior of the package and enter the food. And it’s not a little plastic bag that’s going to solve the problem.
Koni Grob, cantonal laboratory of Zurich: Often, packages have a protective packet inside. But it must be pointed out that mineral oils do NOT need to be in direct contact with the food to transfer from the cardboard to the food. Indeed, mineral oils are diffused through the air and can therefore easily pass through a packet. For instance, this one is absolutely worthless. However, that one, made out of aluminium, is airtight. We didn’t find any mineral oils in the food.
There are two categories of oils: mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH). Both types are petroleum by-products. What are the health risks? Marie-France Corre is a materials engineer and a consultant in France on health issues related to consumption.
Marie-France Corre: What we know is that when one is exposed to significant quantities of these products, they will have acute effects. However, when one is exposed throughout one’s lifetime to lower quantities of these products, they also have effects which are chronic. We have attacks on the organs, typically the liver, the heart and the lymphatic system. So, there we’ll have an inflammation of these organs in reaction to substances contained in the mineral oils and cancers can eventually develop. So, the risk is real, but we can’t quantify it in relation to what was just discovered in the cardboard packages.
All the same, everyday we swallow petroleum by-products. Even in tiny quantities, is there reason for concern?
Here we are in Bern, at the headquarters of the Federal Office of Public Health. The priority here is above all to play down the importance of the situation.
Vincent Dudler, head of chemical risks, Federal Office of Public Health: One mustn’t forget that the principal purpose of packaging is to protect the food. So, we accept a small chemical risk, a minimal risk, which allows us to avoid a much greater risk linked to bacterial contamination.
But isn’t it still worrying that out of 21 products tested, 16 surpassed the limit?
Vincent Dudler: You have to put it into context. If our diet is varied and well-balanced, the risk is negligible.
So it’s tolerable?
No, it’s not tolerable, but now that the problem [of non-respected standards] has been detected, we must do everything possible to limit the consequences.
A question remains. Where the devil do these mineral oils come from? To begin with, we have a fine ecological paradox. It is in fact recycling that poses a problem. Brochures, packaging, old newspapers—today everything is recycled and that is wonderful. The problem is all of this old paper is full of printing ink. And it is this ink that contains mineral oils.
Here we are at Papirec in Geneva. Each day, hundreds of tonnes of old paper and cardboard arrive here. Before they can be recycled, one must first manually remove the maximum amount of paper from the cardboard. For the lesser the amount of old newspaper mixed in with the cardboard, the lesser the amount of mineral oils in the recycled cardboard. However, despite meticulous sorting, there always remains nearly 10 percent of old newspaper in the cardboard.
If we wanted to completely eliminate all newspapers, how many more people would you need? What would the implications be?
Christophe Pradervand, Director of Papirec, Geneva: To begin with, the sorting chain would have to be much slower. And, above all, four to six more people would be required for an optimum sorting and a finished product containing 0 percent printed paper.
So, there is too much newspaper mixed in with the cardboard. Though manufacturers might wash, soak and dry this old cardboard before recycling, for the time being it is impossible to completely eliminate the mineral oils.
Certain factors can accelerate the migration of oils. The most important aggravating factor is storage. Stacking packages one on top of the other for weeks, even months on end results in chemicals merrily migrating from one package to the next, passing through the layers of cardboard. Another aggravating factor is the duration of preservation. The longer a product remains in its packaging, the greater the amount of migration. Conversely, cooking packaged foods can eliminate a significant amount of the mineral oils.
But it’s not only mineral oils that migrate from the packaging to our plates. The cantonal laboratory in Geneva no longer studies substances contained within the cardboard, but also those contained on its surface. These are all the chemical products used in the printing of packages. And there one enters an immense and still largely unknown field.
Patrick Edder, cantonal chemist, Geneva: It’s one of the field’s great difficulties. You have all these pigments and inks, but you also have lots of additives that can be contained in these inks. And these amount to thousands of substances that could potentially contaminate the packaged foods.
In April of 2010, a federal ordinance was modified in an attempt to catalogue these substances, to define which substances are authorized for the printing of food packages and which are banned. In total, the list today contains over 5,000 different chemical products. And for many of them, their effects on human health remain a total mystery.
Patrick Edder, cantonal chemist, Geneva: The toxicology of these substances has often never been investigated, because it was never expected they’d come into contact with foods or be involved in their consumption. So, we don’t have any sufficiently precise study for these substances.
If in 10 or 15 years we find out that some of these chemicals are carcinogenic, won’t we regret our tolerant attitude today?
Vincent Dudler, head of chemical risks, Federal Office of Public Health: Once again, it’s all relative. There are risks. There are benefits. With regard to food, one must accept certain risks. We don’t have any choice. There are just as many carcinogenic and mutagenic substances in foods as in packages.
Marie-France Corre, consumption consultant: In fact, a vast number of these carcinogenic compounds—which are present in foods but also in the air, in the objects that we touch every day—that will contribute to creating a problem. So, with regard to knowing if a box containing pasta will provoke a cancer, the answer is obviously “no.” But it amounts to a slight contribution by this product to a problem that awaits the consumer further down the road.
Next week on ABE, the Consumer Show, what can be done to solve the problem. Solutions exist, but at a cost. That’s in part two. Same place. On worldradio.ch