Mineral oil in food – a topic that concerns the business world and society, but about which far too little is known.
Mineral oils are found almost everywhere and contaminate food not only through packaging. There are plenty of opportunities for foods to enter into contact with mineral oils – not just through packaging! Lubricants and hydraulic oils can migrate into foods already during harvesting. This can also happen in contact with transport packaging, exhaust gases and emissions. Even packaging which consists of recycled waste paper can itself become a source of contamination. The mineral oils come from the printing inks for the cartons.
Currently there are no legal limits – only recommendations. Although Germany has been working on a “Mineral oil regulation” for several years, political standstill is currently prevailing, due not least to the 2017 federal elections and the late formation of the government. Former standards of the World Health Organization were abolished in 2012 due to lack of data. Since then, only a highly technical recommendation of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has applied, which concludes, however, that mineral oil impurities must be minimized.
There can only be a binding European regulation on the mineral oil problem in 2019. Currently, checks are being carried out throughout Europe and data on mineral oils in foodstuffs and their packaging materials are being collected. The results will be compiled by the end of February 2019. Only then can a binding regulation be drawn up on an EU basis.
Humans accumulate up to 13 grams of mineral oil in their body in the course of their life. At the end of 2016, the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, published this finding, which even exceeded EFSA’s expectations. Most of the stored mineral oils enter the food and thus the human organism via the packaging. But a certain basic pollution of the environment, mineral oil components in cosmetic products, or lubricating and hydraulic oils in harvesting or production machines also contribute to this.
Every day, each individual takes in between 0.03 and 0.3 mg of MOSH (mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons) per kilogram of body weight. The European Food Safety Authority estimates that between 0.03 and 0.3 milligrams of MOSH per kilogram of body weight are ingested daily through food. Children may also consume more. The intake of MOAH (mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons) is estimated to be between 0.006 and 0.06 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For a child weighing 10 kilograms, this means a daily intake of up to 3 milligrams of MOSH and 0.6 milligrams of MOAH.
The consequences of mineral oil contamination for humans can currently only be speculated on.There are not yet enough studies on the consequences of mineral oil contamination. There is still disagreement among researchers on how the individual fractions affect each other. However the Federal Institute for Risk Evaluation (BfR) is of the opinion that the transfer of mineral oils to foods should urgently be minimized. It is even stated that there should be no detectable transfer to food in the case of the particularly dangerous, potentially carcinogenic and mutagenic aromatic mineral oils (MOAH).
Mineral oils in packaging and food are difficult to detect. Mineral oils are not chemically clearly defined substances, but a highly complex composition of a wide variety of hydrocarbons. This makes it very complicated to determine, analyse and toxicologically evaluate the respective material.
Manufacturers do not necessarily have to recall products/food contaminated with mineral oil. According to the Product Safety Act (ProdSG), “products […] must be designed in such a way that they do not endanger the health and safety of users”. A recall must only be carried out if there is danger to life and limb for the consumer. Since there are so far no legal maximum values and hardly any data on the damage caused by mineral oils, packaging manufacturers are not obliged to recall products. However, it is often the case that affected companies voluntarily remove their products from the range when contaminated foodstuffs become known.
It is possible to avoid potentially contaminated packaging. There is hardly any mineral oil contamination in packaging made of virgin fibre board because it is freshly manufactured instead of being recycled. The problem is that the supply of virgin fibre-based cardboard is significantly lower than the general demand. However, recycled cardboard plays a very important role here. And the proportion of mineral oils in recycled paper for use in food packaging has been significantly reduced in the last two years. Furthermore, care is taken to ensure that the food is protected by a functional barrier on the inside of the cardboard packaging or is even packed in an inner bag with a barrier.
Not only foods can be contaminated with mineral oils. Residues of mineral oil in spreads, chocolate or cereal porridge are not uncommon. But other products can also contain unhealthy residues, for example, cosmetic products such as creams, lipsticks, baby care products or body oils. In 2015, the neutral product testing organisation Stiftung Warentest investigated 25 products selected by way of example, all based on mineral oil and containing the potentially carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbon MOAH. The products were consequently not polluted by packaging or the environment, but contain mineral oil components as ingredients in their formulation. These ingredients have many advantages for the manufacturers: they are durable and inexpensive, can be produced in constant quality and do not cause allergies. However how many and which mineral oil components can penetrate through the skin has not yet been researched and cannot be defined. If you want to be on the safe side, then choose certified natural cosmetics that do not contain any mineral oil components.