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Proposed New Limits on Chemical Residues in Spices

The Ministry is consulting on planned new controls on the amount of chemical residues to be allowed in spices.

The controls are proposed to be introduced by late April and are part of a group of proposed new maximum residue limits for agricultural compounds in foods to be sold on the New Zealand domestic market.

The major change will see a new upper limit set for the amount of Ethylene Oxide (ETO) which can be present in spices. ETO is used to disinfect spices that are potentially contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella. The most effective of the alternatives is irradiation of the food, and although manufacturers can now apply to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority for permission to irradiate spices, no approvals have been given.

Ministry of Health Chief Advisor, Safety and Regulation, Dr Bob Boyd said, "The proposed MRL has been set at a level that balances the known health risks from disease-causing organisms frequently found in spices against the much lower theoretical risks associated with treatments such as ETO disinfection or irradiation."

"Ethylene oxide is known to cause cancer. Therefore the residue levels to be permitted in spices must be exceptionally low and there must be no evidence of a health risk to the public. This has been confirmed by a risk assessment study which was commissioned by the Ministry in order to come up with its proposed levels. We understand that this is the most thorough examination of the risks posed by ETO in food that has ever been carried out."

On the basis of the risk analysis study, the Ministry of Health has set the proposed upper limit for ETO at 20 parts per million, which is less than half the level permitted in the United States (50 parts per million). This has been the level temporarily permitted in New Zealand under a Food Notice which expires on 22 April.

Dr Boyd said, "There is evidence showing that ETO is capable of causing tumours in both animals and humans, but it does evaporate with time and the World Health Organisation rates the risk as extremely low, even at less stringent levels than we are proposing."

He said, "As part of the risk assessment study, 200 spices currently on the New Zealand market were tested for ETO levels and only two samples were found to have levels above 2 parts per million."

Dr Boyd said the Ministry needed to ensure that consumers were protected.

"There are alternatives to the use of ETO, but each of these have limitations and also pose some risks to consumers."

"We could simply do nothing and run the risk of people getting sick from pathogenic bacteria like salmonella, we could irradiate the spices or we could sterilise them with steam but that reduces the potency of the spice and increase the growth of mould."

Submissions on these proposals close on February 25th. After they have been analysed, a final recommendation will be made to the Minister by mid March.

For further information contact

Selina Gentry Media Advisor

04 4962483/025 2775411

A copy of the document can be found on the Ministry website

www.moh.govt.nz

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