EFSA report on emerging risk – Plastic rice frauds listed

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its annual report on emerging risks. The top 10 risks were defined as follows:

  1. Outbreak related to the consumption of raw beetroot in France;
  2. Growth of Vibrio spp in Northern waters and TTX detection in European bivalve shellfish in UK;
  3. Putative new influenza virus that has been identified in livestock species (cattle and swine) in Belgium;
  4. Risks from the consumption of bitter apricot kernels from Greece;
  5. Increase of deoxynivalenol and zearalenone levels from Italy in 2014;
  6. Dermatitis due to raw or undercooked Shiitake consumption from France;
  7. Increased incidence of Salmonella Infantis in broiler meat from Croatia;
  8. Zoonotic spread of CPE/CPA from Finland;
  9. Artificial plastic rice from UK;
  10. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis outbreak in raw milk from Finland;
  11. Hay as food or food additive from Austria;
  12. Oxalic acid in green smoothies from Germany;
  13. Natural occurrence of bisphenol F (BPF) in mustard from Switzerland.

The report is of extreme interest and each investigation worth a look, but due to my insane passion for food frauds, I will report the specific findings about the “artificial plastic rice” from China.

Artificial plastic rice – Description of the issue

In 2011 reports began circulating in media across South East (SE) Asia that artificial (plastic) rice was being produced in China, which was subsequently being sold in towns such as Taiyuan in Shaanxi province.

The issue was raised in 2013 by European Parliament seeking clarification on whether the Commission was aware of the practice, and if so, what safeguards were in place to prohibit artificial rice from entering into the EU.

A briefing note was prepared by the UK for discussion by EREN, Emerging Risks Exchange Network.

The European Commission response of 20 September 2013 to the Parliamentary question states that rice products originating in China are subject to Commission Implementing Decision 2011/884/EU, recently amended to Commission Implementing Decision 2013/287/EU, which stipulates consignments of rice originating from China can be released for free circulation only if accompanied by analytical report demonstrating it is GM free and a health certificate issued by the Chinese competent authority (AQSIC) certifying the rice has been produced, sorted, handled, processed, packaged, and transported in line with good hygiene practice.

In October 2015 EFSA received a pressa article from an ECDC colleague from their Epidemic Intelligence monitoring. The information on ‘plastic rice’ was apparently found in several media that week. This rice is likely to be commercialised throughout Asia according to some media. The rice is produced using a mix of potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic. It is formed by mixing the potatoes and sweet potatoes into the shape of rice grains, at this point industrial synthetic resins are then added.

It would appear that appropriate tools are in place which reduces the risk of affected products entering the EU, nevertheless, the UK would like to encourage a discussion on the subject, firstly to highlight the practice, but also to consider whether a risk of entry into the EU still remains via third country involvement.

Key points from the discussion, the conclusions and the recommendations

The INFOSAN Secretariat received several inquiries from INFOSAN members in Asia as concerns over fake rice were perpetuated in the media. The Secretariat reached out to INFOSAN members in China to inquire about this event and to verify or dispel the rumours. Unfortunately no further information was supplied.

One INFOSAN member from another Asian country reported a suspected case of illness following the consumption of the implicated rice, but this could not be confirmed upon further investigation and no fake rice was found.

This event highlights the added difficulties that arise during food safety events that result from fraud. In addition, gaps in the analytical methodologies to test for “fake rice” were also raised.

The US FDA and their food fraud network are aware of the issue and are monitoring the rice imported from China. Assumptions arose that this fake rice is exported mainly to the African continent.

EREN discussed the difficulty linked to this issue as no proper risk characterisation can be done unless the different risk characterisation questions such as, which different types of resins are used to produce the fake rice, are properly identified.

EREN concluded that this is considered as an emerging issue. EREN recommended EFSA to contact its different international collaborators from Asia and remain liaised with INFOSAN to be kept updated on this issue.

(Source: EFSA website)

Aspartame study findings published by the Hull York Medical School

The Food Standards Agency is today publishing the findings of a study carried out by Hull York Medical School, determining reactions to aspartame in people who have reported symptoms in the past compared to people with no reported symptoms. The study is also being published in the peer reviewed, open access journal, PLOS ONE.

The study concluded that the participants who were self-diagnosed as sensitive to aspartame showed no difference in their response after consuming a cereal bar, whether it contained aspartame or not. The study looked at various factors including psychological testing, clinical observations, clinical biochemistry and also metabolomics (which is the scientific study of small molecules generated by the process of metabolism).

The Hull/York paper was peer reviewed by the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) in December 2013. COT concluded that ‘the results presented did not indicate any need for action to protect the health of the public’.

Guy Poppy, FSA Chief Scientific Advisor, said: ‘While the best available evidence shows that aspartame can be consumed safely, a number of individuals have reported adverse reactions after consuming food and drink containing aspartame. Given this anecdotal evidence it was appropriate to see if more could be found out about these reported effects. The Hull/York study was not designed to evaluate the overall safety of aspartame as it is already an approved additive.”

The study recruited individuals who reported reactions after consuming aspartame, alongside a matched control group of individuals who normally consume foods containing aspartame without problems. The aspartame was given in a cereal bar so that individuals could not distinguish between bars containing aspartame and the control bars.

The work took the form of a double blind randomised crossover study, the gold standard of scientific research. This type of study is designed to test the effect of a substance in such a way that neither the research team nor the participants know whether the bar consumed contains the test substance or not. Double blind studies therefore eliminate the risk of prejudgment by participants or researchers which could distort the results.

In December 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published an opinion on aspartame following a full risk assessment after undertaking a rigorous review of all available scientific research on aspartame and its breakdown products, including both animal and human studies. The EFSA opinion concluded that ‘aspartame and its breakdown products are safe for human consumption at current levels of exposure’.

The FSA will share the results of this study with EFSA.

(Source: FSA website)