On 7th June 2002, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) published the results of a survey which found that a wide range of food supplements sold in the country were irradiated in breach of food regulations.
Food supplements in general do not fall within one of the seven food categories that may be irradiated and sold in the UK. There may be some exceptions where ingredients of supplements could legally be irradiated and sold, for example products that contain culinary herbs or spices such as garlic, ginger or turmeric. However, the irradiation must be undertaken at an approved facility and indicated on the label. It was not clear where or how these food supplements were irradiated.
None of the irradiated products were labelled as ‘irradiated’ or ‘treated with ionising radiation’. Labelling is a legal requirement, which ensures that consumers are able to choose whether or not to buy irradiated products. The prior approval requirement for irradiation facilities ensures that the authorities are satisfied of the suitability of premises to handle foodstuffs, and that the irradiation procedure used is suitable for the food being processed.
The 2002 survey, the first in the FSA’s knowledge to include food supplements, was undertaken to see if irradiated foods (herbs, spices, prawns, shrimps or food supplements) were on the UK market. This first survey was for market surveillance and not for enforcement purposes; food samples were not collected under the necessary procedures required for formal enforcement action. Of the 138 food supplements analysed, 58 were found to be irradiated – 44 wholly and 14 containing an irradiated component.
On publishing the survey in 2002, the Agency stated that the food supplements industry would need either to seek authorisation for the irradiation of food supplements capable of being approved (no applications were forthcoming) or to take steps to ensure that all ingredients used in food supplements were not irradiated. The relevant trade bodies, companies and local authorities were notified of the survey findings with a view to the industry taking corrective action.
The Agency made it clear that the industry must take action to remove affected products from sale and that a further joint FSA/local authority survey would check that the industry had taken appropriate action.
The results of the 2002 UK survey were noted by the European Commission which then asked all member states to check food supplements. Other member states have found similar levels of irradiated food supplements.
Local authority enforcement officers followed up the issue of irradiated products with food supplement manufacturers, and took what action they could, consistent with their policies and the appropriate codes of practice.
Though a range of options were available to enforcement officers following the 2002 survey, they worked with businesses initially, to advise and assist with compliance, in line with good practice. Their graduated approach to enforcement recognised that most businesses want to comply with the law and that enforcement will take into account the particular circumstances.
Initial actions therefore included educating proprietors, providing advice and/or taking informal action.
More formal actions such as formal sampling followed by a written warning or initiating a prosecution if appropriate were unlikely to be immediately necessary.
As a result of the 2002 survey and subsequent work by local authorities, a number of food supplements were removed from the market over the summer of 2002 and others were reformulated. There was also a significant increase in the number of food supplements and ingredients analysed for irradiation treatment.
The FSA has since coordinated further work with local authorities, by way of additional follow-up, to check whether irradiated food supplements were still on sale in the UK in the early summer of 2003. In contrast to the Agency’s first survey, this work was carried out in such a way as to ensure that the results could be used as evidence in court, allowing local authorities to take formal enforcement action – including prosecutions – if they decided it was necessary.
Local authority enforcement officers from 16 authorities collected, on a formal basis, a range of food supplements sold through a variety of outlets. The object was to determine, through laboratory analyses, whether the products had been irradiated.
Samples were submitted to public analysts at Glasgow Scientific Services under the formal arrangements for passing on samples.
The FSA assigned specific products to each authority to collect. The sampling strategy was generally focused towards those products that had tested positive for irradiation in the Agency’s survey of 2002, but the pool of brands and products sampled in 2003 was not identical with those reported in 2002. In total, 48 food supplements were sampled and analysed.
The analysis was carried out by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC). Two main techniques were used: photostimulated luminescence (PSL) and thermoluminescence (TL). Both these methods for detecting irradiated food are approved by the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN).
The PSL and TL tests for detecting irradiated food make use of mineral grains that are present in small amounts in many foods. Mineral grains store energy when they are exposed to ionising radiation. When light is shone on irradiated mineral grains (as with PSL), or when heated (as with TL), stored energy is liberated giving rise to emission of light that can be measured using sensitive light-detecting instruments.
Once the results were known, local authority enforcement officers visited companies whose products were irradiated and investigated the issue further. This would involve the officers assessing what systems are in place to prevent irradiated products reaching the market and their focus would be to work with companies to improve and address deficiencies and so help companies comply with the law. Such activities have served to remind companies of their obligations and have raised the profile of irradiated food supplements.
In addition, the FSA report notes that “the range of actions taken by local authority enforcement officers balance the need to protect the public with the requirement to act in an equitable, practical and consistent manner”.
Even so, enforcement officers found it necessary to take a more direct formal approach with two companies:
- Belfast City Council invited Health Aid (Pharmadass) to accept a formal caution after finding an irradiated super alfalfa product. The company accepted the formal caution in January 2005. Three other Health Aid brand products sampled as part of this work were also irradiated but it was not considered necessary to proceed with further legal action given that the company had accepted a formal caution in relation to one product.
- Superdrug accepted a formal caution in May 2005 following enforcement action by Bath and North East Somerset Council. This action resulted from the irradiated Greenline brand guarana product, which was manufactured outside of the UK and imported into the country by the company.
Companies whose products were sampled were invited to comment on the results of the enforcement exercise.
Five companies responded and their comments are included in the full report which can be found at www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/ifsenforcementexercise.pdf.
So what did the FSA conclude, once it was clear to publish the report? Firstly that this is not a food safety issue, but it is primarily one of unauthorised use of irradiation and mislabelling. “Consumers are being misled,” it notes.
Secondly, no company in the food supplements industry has sought approval for the irradiation of food supplements. Irradiated food supplements were still being sold in the UK in 2003. “The majority of these food products do not fall into one of the categories of foodstuffs that are allowed to be irradiated under UK regulations. None of the irradiated food supplements were correctly labelled.”
The FSA reminds suppliers that irradiated food supplements should not generally be imported into the UK nor sold in the UK even if labelled as ‘irradiated’ or ‘treated with ionising radiation’.
The possible exception to this would be where a food supplement is made from an irradiated spice or condiment which meets the food irradiation regulations and is correctly labelled (for example irradiated garlic, ginger or turmeric could be permitted ingredients if labelled correctly).
Finally, the FSA has some stern words for food supplement suppliers: “Those who import, manufacture or retail food supplements should be well aware that, with few exceptions, irradiated food supplements are not allowed in the UK. The food supplements industry must take steps to ensure that irradiated ingredients are not included in their products.”