FSA News Item, 13 March 2006
The Agency held an Open Board Meeting in Glasgow on Thursday 9 March 2006 . The following is an extract from the report:
Benzene in soft drinks
The Chief Executive brought the Board up to date on the recent discovery of very low levels of benzene in soft drinks. Following a US survey that had found benzene in soft drinks, the Agency had asked the soft drinks industry in the UK if it had any recent analytical results that would help the Agency form a view as to whether there was a problem in the UK.
The summarised results that had been provided for some 230 drinks indicated that very low levels of benzene could be present in some drinks in the UK , but the expert view was that this was not a concern for public health. However, the Agency felt that more information should be gathered and it had therefore recently instigated a survey to look across the market. The results should be published in about a month's time.
Dr Bell pointed out that the highest level of benzene found in the industry data was eight micrograms per litre of soft drink, and most levels reported were much lower than this. To put this in context he pointed out that benzene is also present in air, and on average people breathe in some 220 micrograms every day. He said, however, that benzene levels should be kept at the lowest levels possible and the Agency was talking to industry about the steps that could be taken to reduce levels or eliminate this substance entirely. It appeared that it was formed as a side reaction between the preservative sodium benzoate and vitamin C under certain conditions
The Chief Executive updated the Board on developments with regard to Sudan I. The main problem with Sudan I in foods had arisen in February 2005 and had appeared to be associated with a batch of contaminated chilli powder used to manufacture Worcester sauce by Premier Ambient Products UK in 2002. The Worcester sauce had been supplied to a large number of other companies that had used it to make several hundred different food products. This resulted ultimately in the need to withdraw a very large number of products from sale.
Dr Bell said that food companies have a legal responsibility to ensure the food they sell is safe and fit for human consumption. In addition, from the beginning of 2005, food companies had had a legal responsibility for recalling products that didn't meet food safety requirements, and for notifying the Agency and local authorities and advising their customers on the reason for the withdrawal. Local authorities had enforcement powers in respect of any breach that might occur in that requirement. Several investigations have been undertaken into the contamination of food products with Sudan I.
In an investigation associated with the product recall, East Anglian Food Ingredients Limited were successfully prosecuted recently by Essex County Council for the sale of hot curry powder containing Sudan I. The legal action was taken by the Essex County Council Trading Standards and the company appeared before Colchester Magistrates Court on 15 February 2006 . The company pleaded guilty to an offence under Section 14 of the Food Safety Act 1990, concerning the sale of food not of the substance demanded by the consumer, and was fined £2,000 and ordered to pay £3,000 in costs.
An investigation had also been carried out by Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council into the production of Worcester sauce and its ingredients by Premier Ambient Foods UK Limited at its Middleton factory. The Agency had provided significant resources to Rochdale MBC in order to ensure that the investigation was carried out as effectively as possible. The investigation was largely completed in December 2005, and in February 2006, Rochdale MBC wrote to the Agency and Premier Ambient Products UK Limited with their decision that there would be no prosecution in this instance. Dr Bell said that Premier Foods had always denied any wrongdoing in this matter.
Other investigations are still in progress, and are being carried out by Derbyshire and Lincolnshire County Council.
The Agency had set up a task force on incidents in 2005, with the aim of looking at what steps could be taken to reduce the risk of similar incidents occurring in future, and managing them as efficiently as possible if they did occur. As a result, guidelines had been drawn up, and the Agency hoped that stakeholders, including the main industry representatives, would endorse them in due course, Dr Bell said.