News 24.02.2022

Mineral oil test: Reaction of companies

  • Mineral oil in foods

Laboratory tests by foodwatch show that many foods from large manufacturers are contaminated with dangerous mineral oils. But instead of admitting mistakes, the companies refuse to recall their products and try to evade responsibility.

The analyses commissioned by foodwatch from two independent laboratories prove that numerous foods are contaminated with aromatic mineral oils (MOAH). These substances are considered carcinogenic and mutagenic. In 2021, foodwatch had a total of 152 food products from five European countries examined - every eighth product was contaminated with MOAH.

foodwatch report with all test results

Since the publication of the test results in December 2021, many of the companies concerned have responded. However, the responses show that the manufacturers do not see the responsibility for the problem with themselves and also do not want to remove the contaminated products from the shelves. It becomes clear that as long as there is no legally prescribed zero tolerance limit for MOAH, contaminated products will keep ending up on our plates.

Alnatura: Mineral oils are unavoidable

The manufacturer Alnatura tries to justify the responsibility for the contamination as a "basic environmental pollution":

Unfortunately, it is nowadays the case that mineral oils are so widespread in the environment that experts speak of a "basic environmental pollution". Traces can therefore be detected practically everywhere. (...) The chicken broth is still permitted for sale and the analysed value of mineral oil components does not exceed any legal limits.
Alnatura's comment on foodwatch Germany's Instagram post of 10.12.21

But the fact that 7 out of 8 of the products foodwatch tested were free from mineral oil contamination, underlines that this allegedly unavoidable "environmental pollution" is just a lame excuse.

Ferrero welcomes clear regulation

Ferrero could not prove any contamination in their own tests. They welcome however a clear regulation on mineral oil in food:

As an immediate measure on our part, a Nutella counter-sample taken from the same production batch was retrieved from our archives and analysed by the SGS laboratory, which, as expected, resulted in a fully compliant Nutella production batch (see attached SGS result).
Letter from Ferrero to foodwatch Germany dated 13.12.21; translated by foodwatch.

foodwatch had commissioned two laboratories to carry out the analyses. The guideline of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the EU was used as the standard for the analysis of mineral oils in the different foods. This describes the current state of laboratory technology. The results of our mineral oil test can be described as safe on the basis of good laboratory practice and analysis technology.

foodwatch had offered Ferrero to exchange the samples and to have them cross-checked by the respective laboratories. However, Ferrero did not accept this offer and decided to wait for the results and findings of an EU-wide ring trial.

Ferrero clearly state that they are  in favour of an EU-wide binding legal regulation on mineral oil contamination in food:

We would welcome a specific and clear regulation on mineral oil in food and therefore look forward to the updated risk assessment of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) by the end of 2022.
Statement by Ferrero to the German BILD newspaper of 13.12.2021

Mars blames suppliers

Mars sees no problem in consuming the product and blames suppliers for testing and controls:

We have confidence that our manufacturing partner who supplies the Milky Way Kako and Milch Duo Crème product adheres to the highest standards of food safety testing. We have completed our own internal investigation following your report and are satisfied that our Milky Way spread has been thoroughly tested and is safe to consume. (...)

In the case of mineral oils, we are working closely with our suppliers to ensure that all practical steps are taken to minimise the risk of trace elements entering the production process. We will continue to ensure that our suppliers adhere to the highest standards in this regard and test raw materials and finished products to ensure that the products we bring to market are safe and of the highest quality.
E-mail from Mars to foodwatch Austria dated 23.12.2021

This excuse fails to recognise that in EU food law the producer or the company placing the food on the market is responsible for compliance with food safety and legal requirements. In the case of the "Milky Way spread", this is the Mars company.

Unilever puts itself above European food law and sees no need for action

The food giant Unilever denies the problem and claims that all its products are safe, although the Knorr bouillon cubes were found to be highly contaminated with toxic mineral oil hydrocarbons in the foodwatch tests (up to 52 mg MOAH per kilo).

Unilever France even reports having conducted its own tests of the affected products. However, they do not reveal what the results were and only refer to the fact that their products did not violate regulations. They want to leave the products on the supermarket shelves:

Consumer safety is our priority. That is why, after receiving the results you reported, we commissioned our own analysis from Kirchhoff, one of the few leading laboratories specialised in carrying out such analyses and evaluating them.

The results confirmed that our Knorr products are safe to consume and comply with the relevant regulations. This means that we will not take any market action.
Letter from Unilever to foodwatch France dated 21.12.21; translated by foodwatch

This behaviour shows that one of the biggest food producers cannot be trusted when it comes to the health and safety of consumers.

At the same time, the manufacturer excuses itself by saying that mineral oil can still get into products through the use of recycled cardboard:

The basic problem is the production of cardboard from recycled waste paper. Especially residues of newspaper inks based on mineral oil get into the cardboard via the recycled fibres. (...) The entire packaging and food industry is working intensively on a solution in close contact with science and authorities.
Unilever statement to ORF konkret; translated by foodwatch

But this problem has been known for a long time - and food producers have used functional barriers in their packaging that have proven to be effective protection.  As the numerous clean products on the market (including bouillon cubes from the competition) show that this is not a justifiable explanation, but instead nothing more than a lame excuse.

Given the facts, foodwatch has cleared the shelves of Unilever’s “Knorr” stock cubes in several European supermarkets to protect consumers from dangerous mineral oils. 

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Food association distorts facts

Most brazen, however, is the excuse of the German food association: they see a potential contamination with carcinogenic mineral oil as "unavoidable" - a statement that experts have long refuted. Moreover, they claim that mineral oils could not be that dangerous, after all, there are no legal limits:

Entries are possible within the framework of manufacturing practice, and are even unavoidable in some processes. The legislator would not be content with orientation values and tolerances if hazardous substances were involved.
LMV statement to the BILD newspaper of 13.12.2021; translated by foodwatch

An absurd distortion of the facts, because it is exactly the other way round. Although mineral oils are undoubtedly dangerous for our health, there is still no zero tolerance limit in food because the EU Commission and the governments of the member states do not assert themselves against the food industry to protect Europe's consumers.

Zero-tolerance rule for aromatic mineral oil

It is becoming clear that as long as there is no law banning mineral oils from our food, not all producers will take action to ensure that contaminated products will not keep ending up on our plates. That is why we finally need an EU-wide zero-tolerance regulation for the particularly dangerous aromatic mineral oils (MOAH).

foodwatch calls on the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, and the decision makers of all the EU Member States to protect all consumers from those invisible contaminants in food products by immediately recalling all products tested positive and adopting a zero-tolerance rule for MOAH contamination in ALL food categories across the EU! 

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