Mineral oils (mineral oil hydrocarbons - MOHs) are complex mixtures derived from crude oil consisting of mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSHs) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAHs). Because they are found in the inks or adhesives of paper and cardboard food packaging, these mineral oils can migrate into food. ANSES was formally asked to conduct an expert appraisal on the risks due to the migration of mineral oils into food from packaging. The conclusions of this expert appraisal led the Agency to recommend better characterisation of the composition of MOH mixtures. Moreover, given the genotoxic and mutagenic nature demonstrated for certain MOAHs, ANSES believes that priority should be given to reducing the contamination of food by these compounds, and proposes some suitable measures.
The issue of mineral oils in contact with food emerged following work by the Zurich Cantonal Laboratory (Switzerland), which revealed the presence of certain categories of mineral oils in dry food packaged in paper and cardboard packaging.
In addition, in an opinion of 2012, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considered exposure to MOSHs to be of concern and exposure to MOAHs as of particular concern. EFSA stressed the need to establish new toxicity reference values for these specific categories of mineral oil hydrocarbons.
In this context, the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control made a formal request to ANSES to propose a definition for the MOHs (MOSHs and MOAHs) migrating from food contact materials. The Agency was also asked to rule on the risks associated with the presence of MOHs in food and, if it should prove impossible to establish toxicity benchmarks, to review the priority work areas and the existing shortcomings from the point of view of characterising the chemical composition and toxicity of MOHs.
The Agency’s recommendations
The Agency recommends, initially, validating a specific and robust analytical method for determining the composition of mineral oil mixtures. ANSES considers that better knowledge of the composition of the mixtures is a prerequisite for making toxicological recommendations, and in particular recommends carrying out additional toxicity studies on representative mixtures of the MOSHs to which the consumer is exposed.
It would then be necessary to have additional data on food contamination by MOHs from recycled paper and cardboard packaging.
Given the genotoxic and mutagenic nature demonstrated for certain MOAHs, ANSES believes that priority should be given to reducing the contamination of food by these compounds.
In the meantime, ANSES recommends limiting consumer exposure to MOHs, and to MOAHs in particular, by acting initially on the main sources of mineral oils in paper and cardboard packaging. In particular, the Agency recommends the use of MOAH-free printing inks, glues, additives and processing aids in the manufacturing process for paper and cardboard packaging.
In addition, in view of the high contamination of paper and cardboard packaging made of recycled fibres, the MOAH levels in recycled fibres should be limited, and to this end ANSES recommends:
- Examining the feasibility of using MOAH-free printing inks, glues, additives and processing aids in the printing sector (magazines, newspapers and other graphic papers). Indeed, newspapers and other printed media entering the recycling chain have been identified as the main sources of mineral oils in recycled paper and cardboard food packaging.
- Conducting studies to identify the steps (sorting, paper pulp manufacture, etc.) in the recycling process that lead to the introduction of MOHs in recycled paper and cardboard packaging. This will help identify the technological levers that can be used to reduce the contamination of recycled fibres (more efficient sorting, reduction of cross-contamination, improvement of the de-inking process, etc.).
Lastly, ANSES recommends the use of barriers to limit the migration of MOHs from packaging into foods. The application of various coatings acting as barriers (PET, acrylate, polyamide, etc.) directly to the paper and cardboard packaging is indeed one solution proposed in the literature to limit the migration of contaminants. The effectiveness of other barriers, in particular starch-based ones, is also currently being studied.