Recently there have been media reports regarding the use of “industrial grade” or “non-food grade” magnesium carbonate in production of seasonings (e.g. pepper) in Taiwan. Problematic seasonings are already released into the food market and associated with food including salty fried chicken, a favourite street snack of Taiwanese.
“Food Grade” Additive vs. “Non-Food Grade” Additive
Different types of food additives are commonly used during food (including seasoning) production. Some chemicals are permitted to be used (in specified food commodities and in right amounts), while others are prohibited from use at all.
In Taiwan, magnesium carbonate is a permitted additive which helps to prevent seasonings from caking and absorbing moisture. However, the preresequite condition is that only “food grade” magnesium carbonate can be used.
An additive meeting food grade must comply with legal specifications i.e. without excessive harmful substances, and neither contaminates final food products nor affects consumer health.
In contrast, “industrial grade” magnesium carbonate is not sufficiently purified and may contain large amounts of toxic heavy metals (e.g. arsenic, lead, etc.). Long term consumption of those toxic metals will affect liver and kidney.
More Examples of “Non-Food Grade” Substances
Apart from magnesium carbonate, several reports reveal that in the past some food enterprises have used “non-food grade” substances to prepare / manufacture food. Examples are shown in the table below.
Lack of Honesty and Self-discipline in Food Enterprises Producing Unsafe Food
The major reason of using industrial grade food additives by food enterprises is of course to lower their production costs. This is indeed gambling – more a loss than gain if a food safety incident occurs e.g. totally ruined brand / reputation, dramatically dropped sales volume, legal liability, huge cost of compensation and image restoration, etc.
(ENT Wellbeing, 2013)
Enhanced Penalty, Monitoring and Education
In order to prevent food enterprises from producing unsafe food, a possible way is to increase the cost of committing crime i.e. increase penalty to strengthen deterrent effect.
Indeed, in year 2013, Taiwan once tightened fines and criminal penalties for violation of food safety laws. For example, the enhanced penalties for violators range from NT$60,000 to NT$ 15 million (~ HK$ 15,000 to HK$ 3.75 million); for illegal activities like addition of unapproved additives, violators can be sentenced to jail in not more than 3 years; and for causing death, violators can be sentenced to life in prison.
In comparison with Taiwan, penalties for violating food safety laws in Hong Kong are less deterrent. According to the food safety legislations under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132), an offender shall be liable on conviction to a maximum fine of HK$50,000 and to imprisonment for 6 months.
Even after penalty enhancement, food safety incidents still occur in Taiwan from time to time. That means the government needs to adopt more strategies to solve the problem. For example, the authority should enhance both regular and unannounced inspection of food enterprise, and increase the type and frequency of both food ingredient and end-product testing. In the long run, education on food safety and social responsibilities is required to make food enterprises behave themselves.
Tips: Is Food Grade also required for Non-Food?
1. Lubricating Oil
Some food manufacturing plants will use “food grade lubricating oil”. Although lubricating oil is not a food, it is used in machines in touch with food during food processing (e.g. food transfer belt). Even for machines without any direct food contact, oil spillage may occur during operation and maintenance of the machine, in turn leading to food contamination. That’s why using food grade lubricating oil without excessive toxic substances (e.g. heavy metals and carcinogenic benzo[a]pyrene) help to avoid potential contamination.
2. Food Contact Material
When a material comes into contact with food (e.g. packaging materials and utensils), its constituents may migrate into the food. For example, metallic utensils made of stainless steel may contain toxic heavy metals like cadmium. Chemical reaction can occur between metallic utensils and strongly acidic / alkaline / oxidizing foods, or foods with lots of electrolytes. Heavy metals will then be released into the food in touch.
In addition, if a food is wrapped with plastic bags, plasticizers, if any, may also migrate into the food. Therefore, food contact substances should also meet “food grade” i.e. only approved materials with acceptable nature and amount of the substances migrated can be used for food contact.