Global Food Body to Update Infant Formula, Egg Safety Standards

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 2, 2007 (ENS) – New measures to ensure safer powdered infant formula and improved hygienic egg production topped the agenda as the highest international body on food standards opened its annual session today with representatives from more than 100 countries. Ethylene in organic foods, a toxin in wine, and allowable pesticide residues are also on the agenda

The Codex Alimentarius Commission works to improve food quality, safeguard consumer health, ensure fair trade practices, and coordinate all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Created in 1963 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, and the World Health Organization, WHO, Codex now includes members from more than 160 countries.

Infant powdered formula is pasteurized but not sterile and may contain bacteria. (Photo courtesy Environmental Health Perspectives )

This week, Codex will reconsider the 1981 standard on infant formula, which was based on scientific knowledge from the 1970s.

The revised standard for infant formula and those for special medical purposes is based on the latest scientific understanding of the composition of breast milk.

"It is important to support breastfeeding and promote its benefits to infants and young children," said Dr. Jorgen Schlundt, director of the WHO department of food safety, zoonoses and food-borne diseases. "However, in some instances, breastfeeding is either not possible or not appropriate. In these cases, one of the dietary options is the use of powdered formulae."

Cans of powdered infant formula (Photo credit unknown)
"Powdered infant formula is not a sterile product and can be contaminated with life-threatening bacteria," he said. "It is extremely important that these formulae are safe and properly labeled. The proposed standard will help save many infant lives in countries around the world."

Recently there has been concern internationally about the bacterium Enterobacter sakazakii in powdered infant formula. Bacteria may be present in the powder on purchase or can be introduced at the time of preparation.

Powdered infant formula has been pasteurized but is not sterile. Caregivers using powdered formula should prepare only the amount of formula required for the baby’s next feeding, and prepare it as close as possible to the feeding time.

In situations where the mother cannot breastfeed, or chooses not to breastfeed for any reason, the WHO says caregivers should use commercially sterile liquid formula whenever possible. If that is not possible they should include a decontamination step in the preparation of powdered infant formula such as reconstituting it with boiling water or heating the reconstituted formula to destroy the bacteria.

Enterobacter sakazakii has been detected in other types of food, but only powdered infant formula has been linked to outbreaks of disease.

A review of cases in infants reported in the literature published in English from 1961 to 2003 found 48 cases of Enterobacter sakazakii induced illness among infants under 60 days old. Although infection is rare, it has resulted in serious illness and death in premature infants.

"The true magnitude of the problem is unknown due to lack of surveillance and reporting systems for Enterobacter sakazakii in most countries," WHO said in 2004.

WHO says there is no data to demonstrate differences in the levels of Enterobacter sakazakii depending on the infant formula manufacturer.
Eggs can be contaminated with salmonella. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
During this six day meeting, the Codex Commission also will be looking at a revised code of hygienic practice for eggs and egg products.

Eggs and egg products are a significant contributor to salmonellosis - a major food borne disease worldwide. Adoption of the revised code would improve countries' capacity to produce safer product, Codex said in a statement today.

Another draft code up for adoption would prevent or reduce Ochratoxin A contamination in wine. Ochratoxin A is a mycotoxin known to be toxic to the kidneys.

The code would address all measures that have been proven to prevent and reduce contamination of wine across the production chain.

The Codex delegates will also consider draft maximum levels for tin in canned foods and beverages, a standard for food additives, and draft maximum residue limits for pesticides.

The inclusion of ethylene in the Codex guidelines for organic food production, processing, labeling and marketing is on the agenda for this week's meeting.

Ethylene ripening rooms at a facility in Seattle, Washington. (Photo courtesy Charlie's Produce)

Ethylene is an odorless, colorless gas that exists in nature and can also be manufactured. It is used to induce fruits and vegetables to ripen more quickly than they would if left untreated.

Critics of its use to treat organic foods say it represents a disturbing step towards World Trade Organization-enforced acceptance of the same unnatural agricultural practices to which non-organic foods are already subject.

Codex will consider draft guidelines on the application of general principles of food hygiene to the control of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes in foods.

Listeria has been associated with foods such as raw milk, supposedly pasteurized fluid milk, cheeses, particularly soft-ripened varieties, ice cream, raw vegetables, fermented raw-meat sausages, raw and cooked poultry, raw meats, and raw and smoked fish. Its ability to grow at temperatures as low as 3°C permits multiplication in refrigerated foods.

People most at risk of infection include pregnant women and their fetuses; persons immunocompromised by corticosteroids, anticancer drugs, graft suppression therapy, AIDS; cancer patients, and the elderly.

The Codex meeting will also consider new quality standards for three regional food products from the Middle East. If adopted, the draft codes would set standards for canned tehina, a sesame seed paste, and hummus with tehina - a sesame seed and chickpea mixture common throughout the region. Another standard would apply to canned ful medammes, a popular broad bean dish.

FAO and WHO will launch a Framework for the Provision of Scientific Advice and will also present the Global Initiative for Food related Scientific Advice during the meeting.

The FAO/WHO Codex Trust Fund provided financial support to representatives from 34 developing countries to attend the Codex Commission meeting.

"FAO and WHO support the efforts of developing countries to strengthen their national food safety systems to protect local consumers and to take advantage of international food trade opportunities. They also enable developing countries to participate more effectively in Codex work," said Ezzeddine Boutrif, chief of the FAO Food Quality and Standards Service.

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