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Lead in cornflour

26 July 2004

Lead in cornflour

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) is investigating lead contamination in cornflour in the wake of a result from targeted testing undertaken as part of its programme of monitoring and surveillance.

Unexpectedly high levels of lead were confirmed in 100gm Robinsons Step Up Egg Custard on Friday 16 July and the distributor was immediately notified. The distributor issued recall notices for all batches of the product (not just the affected batches) on Monday 19 July, said Director of Domestic and Imported Food, Tim Knox.

“Laboratory analysis has determined that the source of the lead was batches of cornflour milled in New Zealand, with the cause believed to have been a localised portion of a 6000 tonne shipment of Chinese corn. The imported corn was tested by the miller prior to milling but did not show levels of concern.

“Investigations are on-going, but indications are that contamination may have occurred in transit, and is limited to a small portion of the shipment. This explains why random testing prior to milling did not detect the problem.

“Over the last week, NZFSA has worked with the milling company to trace the origin of the contamination and to determine how much and what other foods may be affected.

“On Friday 23 July, tests identified a second product, packaged cornflour, with unacceptable levels of lead present. Over the weekend, we worked with the company, Murdoch Manufacturing, to identify the scope of the problem and isolate products and the range of distribution. A recall notice for relevant batches of (Pams Maize Cornflour 400gm and Gilmours Maize Cornflour 5kg sold in the South Island) has been issued by the company.

“All milled batches that potentially might have been affected have now been tested and results were available to us late this afternoon. It appears that the affected product was made from corn imported in September last year and milled between October 2 and 4. Three batches have elevated levels of lead. We have been working with the milling company, Penfords, to identify to which customers the cornflour went, and with these customers to identify in which products it was used.

“While high levels of lead in food are unacceptable, it is important to remember that not all the cornflour in each batch may have been affected. In addition, the bulk of the product was used as an ingredient and, as such, makes up a small proportion of the food in which it has been used. Our assessment shows that, in all but the recalled products, lead levels are likely to be within the acceptable limits for the foods concerned.

“We are in the process of contacting all the companies identified as potentially having bought affected cornflour in order to determine where and how it was used. We are conducting assessments based on this information to determine whether the level people were likely to have been exposed to poses a risk. Unless the cornflour has been sold as packaged cornflour, or as custard powder, there is likely to be no risk.”

Dr Donald Campbell, Medical Officer of Health in Palmerston North, says effects of lead exposure are cumulative.

“Contaminated batches of the cornflour were used in the Robinsons custard, and in the products of the other manufacturers, for a short period of just a few months, so we would not expect anyone would suffer either long or short-term effects. The only exception would be in the unlikely circumstance of a baby eating the custard several times a day every day for a prolonged period, and of every jar being from the affected batch. This is most unlikely. However, we understand how worried parents of young children who have eaten large amounts of the egg custard will be, and suggest that people with any concerns should consult their doctor.”

Tim Knox says that a low level of lead is not unexpected as lead is present in the environment, from both natural and man-made sources. However, the levels detected during targeted monitoring for the Total Diet Survey were unacceptable.

“Looking at heavy metal contaminant levels in foods, and in particular baby foods, is a key element of the Total Diet Survey. Based on trends from previous surveys we do not expect to find high levels of lead contamination, as lead levels in New Zealand food have dropped to one of the lowest in the world.

“We run a comprehensive science programme in order to confirm the safety of New Zealand food. These systems have been shown to be effective in uncovering issues as is evidenced in this situation.

“Our monitoring uncovered the problem, it was confirmed as an issue of concern, and the manufacturers and distributors concerned immediately did everything right.”

Tim Knox notes that NZFSA will soon be releasing its imported foods discussion document.

“The aim of the review is to identify the needs and expectations of New Zealanders, identify major food safety and security threats and make recommendations on cost effective ways that the existing import controls could be improved.

"International trade in food and food related products continues to grow at a rapid rate. Foods imports into New Zealand have increased significantly since 1996. This has led to an emergence of new risks and concerns over the safety and security of the food supply. A number of countries have reviewed and strengthened the measures they have in place to ensure food imports are safe and secure and it is timely for New Zealand to do the same." he says.


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