EFSA gives update on semicarbazide: no reason to change current dietary habits including for babies. Precautionary action by industry recommended for baby foods

EFSA released today a risk assessment regarding semicarbazide (SEM) in food based on the most recent evidence made available to its scientific panel. This statement updates preliminary advice issued by EFSA on the possible occurrence of semicarbazide in certain foods packaged in glass jars and bottles. While results are not conclusive at the present time, it has become clear that SEM is present in certain foods in very small quantities. The risk to consumers - if any - is judged by scientific experts to be very small, not only for adults but also for infants. Nevertheless, experts believe it would be prudent to reduce the presence of SEM in baby foods as swiftly as technological progress allows. EFSA therefore recommends that the European Commission put in place a monitoring programme to ensure that industry implement alternative packaging solutions in a timely manner focusing on baby foods as an immediate priority. In the interim, EFSA’s scientific experts advise no change to current dietary habits: consumers may continue to utilise all foods concerned, including baby foods.

On 28th July, EFSA announced that semicarbazide (SEM) may have been found in certain foods packed in glass jars and bottles closed with metal lids sealed with plastic gaskets. The foods concerned included fruit juices, jams and conserves, honey, baby food, pickles and sterilized vegetables, mayonnaise, mustard, sauces, and ketchup. As the toxicity of SEM is not well understood, further investigations into its presence in food and possible effect on human health have been undertaken by EFSA and industry.

Initially, it had been thought that the apparent occurrence of SEM in foods could be explained by its generation through the analytical process itself. However, the latest evidence is understood to show that semicarbazide is produced during the heat treatment of an approved blowing agent (azodicarbonamide) utilized to make sealing gaskets in the lids of glass jars and bottles and that it migrates from the gaskets into foods.

In assessing the risks associated with semicarbazide, experts reviewed: the most recent scientific evidence made available on the toxicology of SEM; the levels found in foods; and estimated intakes of SEM by babies, children and adults. The scientific evidence, including recent research commissioned by EFSA, shows that semicarbazide has weak carcinogenic activity in animals and weak genotoxic activity (that is, it can damage DNA, the genetic material in cells). The amounts of semicarbazide present in foods are very low. Although uncertainties about SEM still remain - not only about the extent of human exposure through the diet but also concerning the likelihood of effects in humans - EFSA’s scientific panel concluded that the risk associated with eating foods containing semicarbazide is very small.

Commenting on these conclusions, the Chair of the EFSA Panel, Dr. Sue Barlow explained: "The risk to consumers resulting from the possible presence of semicarbazide in foods – if any – is judged to be very small, not only for adults but also for infants. Although there are uncertainties in the risk assessment due to lack of full data at the present, these relate only to how to assess what is considered to be a very small risk."

An ad hoc expert group was specifically asked by EFSA to advise further on possible risks to infants given that this is the consumer group for which potential exposure to semicarbazide on a body weight basis is likely to be the highest. In evaluating the possible implications of SEM in baby foods, experts reviewed toxicological aspects alongside microbiological and nutritional considerations. Experts highlighted that although not an obligatory part of infants’ diets, baby foods in jars are widely used for reasons of convenience, quality and nutritional safety. With an excellent record of microbiological safety, they provide strong protection against microbiological and other risks of contamination. While concluding that it would be prudent to reduce exposure to semicarbazide as swiftly as technologically possible, experts stressed that it would be unwise to take any immediate actions on baby foods which could potentially have other detrimental effects on the health of babies. With respect to the possible replacement of current packaging materials and sealing technologies for baby foods currently being investigated by industry, it is critical that careful consideration and evaluation of seal integrity be carried out prior to their introduction.

No immediate action on the part of consumers or retailers is recommended regarding the occurrence of semicarbazide in baby foods and other foods packed in glass jars and bottles.

EFSA does however urge the pursuit of an action programme to reduce the presence of SEM in foods, including the identification of alternative packaging solutions and monitoring of levels of SEM in foods. EFSA also recommends that the Commission put in place a monitoring programme to ensure that the replacement of the current type of sealing gaskets for glass jars by industry progresses as quickly as possible.

(you will find in pdf file available in download the 'Additional advice on semicarbazide, in particular related to baby food Ad hoc expert group meeting 9 October 2003')