July 6, 2010

New Rules Established For Bagged Salads, Melamine

On Tuesday, an international food safety body set new rules on preparing bagged salads and also said that the chemical melamine is acceptable only in tiny amounts in infant formula and food.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission said that animal manure should not be used to fertilize lettuces and other fresh vegetables that are sold "ready to eat."  The decision was made during its meeting in Geneva.

The Codex experts said that contaminated water must also be kept away from bagged produce that is not heat-treated, which could inevitably change production and harvesting structures across the world.

"The problem is global," Jorgen Schlundt, director of food safety and zoonoses at the World Health Organization (WHO), told Reuters Health.

"It makes sense in a number of different production systems but when you are producing fresh salads that will be treated without heat treatment there is a problem," he said.

Codex is a joint venture of the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization.  The body establishes food safety rules for importers and exporters.

The panel agreed that small levels of melamine could be safe for human consumption, but set upper limits of 1 mg per 1 kg of powdered infant formula and 2.5 mg per 1 kg of other food and feeds.  Melamine is the chemical used in making plastics, fertilizers and concrete.

Angelika Tritscher, a WHO food safety expert, told Reuters Health that melamine can be released in small quantities from a certain pesticide or when food comes into contact with hard plastic dishes, table-tops or some food processing machinery.

She said that the human body could tolerate this "natural contamination" of melamine in small doses, unlike the intentional addition of the compound added to Chinese milk that killed six children in 2008 and made about 300,000 sick.

"Intentional addition of melamine to food to fortify protein content is by no means acceptable at any level," she said. "The purpose of these limits is to allow for the occurrence of natural contamination through approved uses."

The 2008 melamine crisis damaged the reputation of China's dairy industry and further scarred the made-in-China brand.  China executed two people for the part they played in the scandal.

Tritscher said the Codex has yet to agree on a standard for ractopamine, a growth hormone added to pig feed that China and the European Union have alleged is unsafe.  The drug promotes development for leaner meat.

It is banned in the EU, and Brussels has banned imports of pork from Brazil.  Taiwan and Thailand also ban imported pork with residues of ractopamine.

China banned imports of pork from U.S. producers that are found to contain residues of ractopamine.  The U.S. said that it "strongly disagrees with China's assertions" and called for evidence to back up the ban.

"The discussions have been ongoing. It could still be made this week," Tritscher told Reuters Health. The Codex meeting ends on Friday.

A Codex ruling on ractopamine could set a benchmark for WHO to use to review countries' adherence to international trade agreements on food safety and sanitation.


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