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Nuts to the law!

July 1998

Packages of nuts with levels of toxic mould (aflatoxin) 200 times the legal limit have been found on sale in shops but food inspectors are unable to prosecute because of a loophole in food laws, says a report from the Food Commission today.

The results of tests by Suffolk County Council, published in The Food Magazine today found that six out of eighty samples of Brazil nuts, peanuts and pistachio nuts it analysed exceeded the maximum permitted limit for aflatoxins (4m g/kg or 4 parts per billion).

The worst case was a packet of nuts with 235 times the permitted level. Yet Trading Standards Officers have been unable to prosecute as the suppliers were able to produce certificates showing that aflatoxin levels in the bulk consignments, from which the nuts had been packaged, were within the legal limit.

Roger Hopkins, Head of Food and Agriculture with Suffolk Trading Standards Department says 'These certificates may not be worth the paper they are written on. Certificates are open-ended and take no account of the time that could elapse and inappropriate storage conditions after the certificate has been issued but before the product is eaten. Our findings also raise questions about the way in which the integrity and competence of testing laboratories is assessed.'

In another case a shipment of Nigerian groundnuts (peanuts) at Felixstowe Docks was found to be contaminated with aflatoxins 300 times above the legal limit. Yet it came with a certificate from a laboratory in Durban showing aflatoxin contamination to be below the legal limit.

The Food Commission is calling for

  • EU regulations to include standards for certification and storage of produce;
  • Port Health and Trading Standards Authorities to have more powers and resources for testing, amid fears that new EU sampling requirements will cut the number of consignments tested.
    Notes to Editors:

1. Aflatoxins are potent liver carcinogens. For many years farm animals were afforded greater protection than humans. Not until 1992 were legal limits on the amounts that foodstuffs can contain introduced in the UK.

2. A MAFF survey published in 1996 found that a quarter of the consignments of nuts and dried figs sampled at ports had higher levels of aflatoxins than permitted by UK law for human consumption.

3. New EU laws, which will come into force by January 2000, lay down testing procedures and limits for aflatoxins.