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Food Technology -- Are We as Safe as We Think?

by Dr. Konrad Grob, Kantonales Laboratory, Zurich

Food technology is developing at an ever-faster rate. Clever treatments can make meat look more attractive or convert by-products to a well-paid food component; modifications or additions enable sales-stimulating health claims and new packaging materials allow longer storage. To the shareholders, the strategy of pushed innovation is presented as a means to increase profitability. To the consumers, it is presented as a means to make "improved" products. Innovation to find cheaper technology (e.g., the addition in wine of extracts from oak chips instead of storing the wine in oak barrels) is almost inevitable in a competitive economy.

I do not want to discuss the benefits of such innovation, but instead draw attention to the risks. Those responsible for the innovation say they conduct thorough "scientific" research and "rigorous control" of all risks, but when food control authorities ask specific questions, they usually discover the research was not done because it would have been too expensive or there was no time because of the intense competition. An example: it is about two cents (US) cheaper to remove the free fatty acids from a liter of raw edible oil by steam treatment compared to the older method of extraction with alkali. As steam treatment requires heating the oil at 240-260°C for a few hours, it seems obvious that the effects of such extremely high temperatures should be investigated. For instance, up to 60% of the essential linolenic acid is isomerized to various trans components. The industry never checked whether this can be tolerated. I hope the consumer profits from the two-cent savings -- he carries the risks anyway.

By eating we expose our bodies, perhaps our most valuable asset, to these products. Often only in the hospital (e.g., when cancer ruins our organism) do we start seriously thinking about such risks. Nobody knows how many cases of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other diseases are caused by unwanted side-effects of food technology, but it might be many more than we think. During the last 15 years, Europe has dealt with the threat of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also called mad cow disease. If BSE had been transferred from animals to humans equally as well as between certain animals, most of the British and a good portion of the continental Europeans could have died already or would die during the next ten years, resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths. It is amazing that we have seen only 90 victims so far. This case should teach us a lesson. It was caused by the use of "valuable by-products" (i.e., wastes from animal bodies) and a more "efficient" treatment using the knowledge of the time that heating to 120°C should rule out infection. However, this was wrong; one of these errors caused by our incomplete knowledge.

Every new process or component added to our foods introduces risks. Most risks are small, but there are thousands of them. For a food control laboratory, such as the one where I work, this is frightening. For example, in 1995 we were testing olive oil for adulteration with specially-treated sunflower oil when we were disturbed by an extra peak. It turned out to be bisphenol-A diglycidyl ether (BADGE) released from the internal coating of the food can, present at a concentration of 80ppm. Considered as a suspect carcinogen, the Swiss legal limit was 20ppb. 80ppm for a possible carcinogen was astounding! Billions of food cans contained BADGE at levels exceeding 1ppm. Millions were removed from the Swiss market and authorities in the EU became active. Later BADGE was shown to be non-carcinogenic. Hence, we were lucky once again. However, it only took a few months to realize that the migrant from the food containers to the food usually forms a forest of peaks, with dozens of giant trees whose identities -- not to mention their toxicity -- nobody has investigated.

Many analysts know that food packaging materials often release forests of peaks, rendering their search for a given compound difficult. Usually they have no time to identify these peaks, or are even told not to do so. Many producers do not want to know about them because then they would carry the responsibility. It is a horror to any manager that a migrant from his product could be a potent carcinogen, and to have journalists or lawyers show him documents that prove he knew about it for years. Ignorance may be bliss to them.

With the fast changes in food technology safety is a delicate issue. We analysts have the most powerful tools in our hands to known that food safety does not meet the standards communicated to consumers. Some of us daily see the forests of unknown peaks, the artifacts from technological processes, and contaminants. The probability is high that among the ten thousands of compounds, a few are highly toxic. Many of the untested compounds we ingest in amounts that exceed those required to prevent pregnancy or to change our thinking (e.g., LSD or psychopharmaca). They might make us more beautiful, but, unfortunately,many more chemicals cause damage than help us. The problem is that we cannot spit them out once we notice that they are bad.

We analysts carry the burden of knowledge and responsibility to inform; even if it is to people who do not want to know. This is a difficult position. The analyst working for producers is the spoilsport of the technologists who are enthusiasts of their new product and of those who want to see the money coming in soon. The others working for the public usually get to hear that there is no regulation on the subject,that there is no sufficient proof of a harmful effect and, hence, that nothing can be done, or that there is no longer anybody around who could investigate the subject. In fact, mechanisms of economy get stronger, whereas authorities defending the public interests shrink.

I believe and hope that, in the end, we Europeans will escape BSE with less than 1000 human deaths. We have no idea how many diseases and deaths are due to minor risks caused by food technology, but we should take notice that the probability of being severely hit constantly increases. This makes one wonder if the game about higher profitability plays with our safety?

Originally published in the Restek Advantage 2001, Volume 1