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Ensuring palm oil safe as food ingredient
Published on: Sunday, March 31, 2024
By: M R Chandran
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Oil palm: The concerns are not just deforestation habitat loss and use of pesticides and herbicides.
Strategies for ensuring food safety of palm oil should be intrinsically linked to sustainability. One of the most significant issues facing the palm oil industry is the environmental impact of large-scale production.

Oil palm plantations have been linked to deforestation, habitat loss and displacement of indigenous communities.

Additionally, the use of pesticides and herbicides can contaminate soil and water, potentially leading to adverse health effects. It is thus essential to consider sustainability strategies when discussing the food safety of palm oil.

Examples of sustainability strategies that can be used to improve the food safety of palm oil include:
  • Improved land use efficiency through increased productivity
  • Reduced pesticide use
  • Good manufacturing practices: Palm oil mills and processing facilities should follow good manufacturing practices to prevent contamination
  • Traceability: Palm oil should be traceable from the plantation to the consumer. This will help to identify and remove contaminated products from the market.


To ensure the safety of palm oil as a food ingredient, it is essential to implement comprehensive controls throughout the entire value chain

The production and processing of palm oil as a food ingredient involves a complex value chain, from cultivation and harvesting to milling, refining and transport. Each stage of this value chain has the potential to introduce contaminants that can affect the quality and safety of the final product.

Therefore, controlling these aspects of the value chain is crucial to ensuring the safety of palm oil as a food ingredient. In addition, it is important to remain vigilant and proactive in identifying and addressing new and emerging contaminant issues, to stay ahead of potential risks to the safety and quality of palm oil products.

Vegetable oils, including palm oil, can be subject to a range of process contaminants. Some of the most important process contaminants in vegetable oils include:

1. 3-MCPD (3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol): This is a contaminant that can occur during the refining process of vegetable oils. 3-MCPD can be formed from the breakdown of triglycerides under high temperatures and pressures. It is a potential carcinogen.

2. Glycidyl esters (GEs): GEs are also formed during the refining process of vegetable oils, particularly when high temperatures and pressures are used. GEs are potential carcinogens.

3. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): PAHs are formed when vegetable oils are heated to high temperatures during cooking or frying. They are potential carcinogens.

4. Acrylamide: Acrylamide is formed when vegetable oils are heated to high temperatures during cooking or frying. It is a potential carcinogen.

3-MCPDE and GE

The industry should shed its “working in silos” mentality. The plantation, milling and refining sectors should work together to identify the source of the precursors and mitigate the formation of 3-MCPDE and GE.

Chlorides could originate from fertilisers or from the mill’s water treatment system where chloride-based chemicals are used. The presence of chlorides in the crude palm oil (CPO) coupled with acid-based bleaching and high temperature in the deodorisation process are all ingredients for the formation of 3-MCPDE.

For GE, the main precursors are diacyglycerols and monoacylglycerols and these are correlated with free fatty acid (FFA) levels in the CPO.

The industry must thus take serious steps to reduce critical precursors from upstream processes, avoid or minimise 3-MCPDE/GE formation during refining and remove the esters that have formed from refined oil. Consistent limits for 3-MCPDE should be established across all types of vegetable oils, regardless of their origin or production methods. There should be no option for a point of differentiation that will ultimately result in discrimination of palm oil.

Reluctance to embrace technology that could help improve sustainability and safety

The industry prioritises short-term profitability over long-term survival and sustainability of the industry. For example, MPOB research has highlighted 12.8 % contamination of commercial plantings with non-tenera palms nationwide.

Shell DNA screening prior to planting would ensure only tenera palms are cultivated, and hence significantly increase productivity and land use efficiency. This is especially important considering that the oil palm is a perennial crop with a 25-year economic lifespan.

However, the industry is more concerned about the cost of implementing the new technology despite the long-term economic and environmental benefits. Business as usual simply cannot be an option.

With respect to allowable contamination levels for food safety, the industry’s common stance that these values, including those for 3-MCPD and GE, should be market-driven and on a willing buyer, willing seller basis is simply not acceptable. Such a mindset will ultimately result in a stagnant industry allowing competitors to brand themselves and steal customers with novel solutions.

Objections to amendments to the Malaysian standards (SIRIM standards) for quality of oil palm and palm oil

SIRIM standards dictate the quality of planting material and quality and safety of palm oil and products produced in Malaysia to ensure they meet international quality standards.

However, although some of the standards may be outdated and do not reflect the latest research and technologies available for improvement, there is unwillingness to adopt new improved standards. For example, efforts to incorporate DNA testing for improved planting material have met with objections from the industry.

Efforts to reduce the maximum allowable SIRIM standard limit of dura contamination from 5% have also met with resistance from industry members, who in the past boasted that their dura contamination was negligible. 

However, DNA testing has shown otherwise. It is ironic that Indonesia has already reduced its maximum allowable limit to 2%.

The SIRIM standards do not include any limits on 3-MCPD and GEs. It is disheartening that MPOB’s planned and publicised implementation of Licensing Conditions for 3-MCPDE and GE starting Jan 1, 2023, has now been postponed to Jan 1, 2026, because of pressure from the industry.

Food safety compromises threaten not only consumer health but also carry costly consequences and will undermine the value of the oil palm industry.

Latest contaminant issues — MOSH and MOAH

Mineral oil saturated hydrocarbon (MOSH) and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) are potential carcinogens and the latest contaminant issue the industry should take precautionary measures against. Due to their lipophilic properties, oils and fats including palm oil are susceptible to contamination with MOSH and MOAH.

They are not present in FFB, but MOSH and MOAH can be introduced at any point in the food production process from raw materials, production, storage and transport to packaging materials.

Although there is no global regulatory standard for permissible levels for MOSH and MOAH, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Union have already come up with recommendations for these contaminants (EU 2017/84). The argument from industry members that these requirements are only for the European regulators and buyers is simply not acceptable because there should be no compromise to food safety.

Future contaminant issues — arsenic?

The recent tightening of standards on arsenic by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implications for many food products, including palm oil.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can be found in soil and water, and can accumulate in crops, including oil palm. Exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, skin lesions and cardiovascular disease.

In 2021, the FDA announced new guidelines on arsenic levels in infant rice cereal. The guidance set a limit of 100 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.

While this guidance specifically targets infant rice cereal, it is likely that other food products, including palm oil, may also be affected by the tightening of standards on arsenic. This may especially be so since palm oil is used widely in infant formulae to achieve palmitic acid levels similar to those in human milk.

Conclusion

Today, an unprecedented combination of pressures and trends are shaping the way we consume, produce and distribute food. To remain relevant in the long term, the oil palm industry needs to keep pace with the rapidly changing world and transform knowledge into action. As concerns about the environmental and health impacts of palm oil production continue to grow, it is increasingly clear that the industry must embrace change in order to remain viable and sustainable. This will require a shift in mindset and a willingness to invest in new technology and practices that prioritise sustainability and safety.

M R Chandran is the vice-president of the Malaysian Oil Scientists’ & Technologists’ Association (MOSTA) and chairman of IRGA Sdn Bhd

This is an abstract of the paper presented by the writer at the International Palm Oil Congress & Exhibition (PIPOC) hosted by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) in Kuala Lumpur in November.


- The views expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Express.

- If you have something to share, write to us at: [email protected]



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