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SA apple juice recalls and all about the risks of patulin

For the past month or so, apple juice products produced in South Africa are being recalled due to unacceptable levels of patulin, a mould which can cause nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances and vomiting.

Coca-Cola South Africa was the first to issue a recall of more than 37,000 cases of its Appletiser products in September. LiquiFruit and Ceres, both subsidiaries of Pioneer foods, also issued similar recalls, with Woolworths’ own brand of apple juice also affected.

The National Consumer Commission confirmed on Oct 13 that Elgin Fruit Juice was being investigated as the source of the patulin problem.

The company, based in Grabouw in the Western Cape, has been identified the supplier of 100% apple juice concentrate to affected fruit juice producers.

Coca-Cola South Africa was the first manufacturer to raise the alarm in September, issuing a recall for more than 37,000 cases of Appletiser products. A similar recall was implemented in Australia.

Just weeks later, LiquiFruit and Ceres – both subsidiaries of Pioneer foods – also announced the recall of certain apple juices. Woolworths is the latest company to recall its 200 ml branded apple juice cartons.

These recalls all stem from the detection of elevated levels of patulin and recalls effect batches of products which contain patulin levels exceeding 50 parts per billion, or 50 micrograms per kg, according to the National Consumer Commission (NCC).

Neighbouring countries like Botswana and Namibia have also started recalling products imported from South Africa. Ceres products have been exported to 25 countries, according to BusinessInsider SA.

Understanding safety issues around patulin

Here is expert information from Anelich Consulting, authored by one of SA’s foremost food microbiologists, Dr Lucia Anelich.

Fruit juice processing, as for any food processing, has certain inherent food safety risks. One such risk is the potential presence of a toxin called patulin, produced by certain fungi, mainly Penicillium expansum, when related to apples. 

The generic name for a fungal toxin is “mycotoxin”. Patulin is but one example of a mycotoxin.

How does patulin enter the juice?

The fungus itself is present on the surface of the fruit and is a common storage-rot fungus of apples. Care must be taken to limit the amount of fruit that enters the juicing process that visibly shows fungal growth, spoilage, or damage. The patulin is produced by the fungus whilst present on the apples. Therefore, the patulin is pre-formed and enters the juicing process via the apples. 

Fruit juices and concentrates (including Appletiser and the bases for Liquifruit and Woolworths juices) are pasteurized to kill off any microorganisms that could cause foodborne disease (food poisoning) and that could cause spoilage of the product, such as yeasts. which are commonly associated with unpasteurized juices. 

However, the heating temperatures used for pasteurization do not destroy the patulin. Using higher temperatures is impractical as the higher temperatures would affect certain desirable quality attributes of the product, making the juice undesirable for the consumer.

Is it necessary to have a zero-tolerance for patulin?

In most cases when it comes to food safety, a certain level of either a substance or a microorganism is tolerated by humans without causing disease. Several international organizations and food safety authorities conduct research, gather information and conduct risk assessments. The latter includes considering the age of the individual, any underlying conditions, frequency of ingestion of the food or beverage under consideration, portion size and more. At the end of such a risk assessment, a maximum permitted level of that substance/microorganism in that particular food is often developed.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) is an international standards-setting organization under the auspices of the FAO and WHO. The CAC has indeed published a standard (CODEX STAN 193-1995) that specifies a maximum level of 50 micrograms per kilogram (µg/kg) of patulin in apple juice. This is the same as saying 50 parts per billion.

What is the safety level? 

Most importantly, patulin does not accumulate in the body and taking consumption patterns into consideration, JECFA (Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives), an FAO/WHO body, established a PMTDI (provisional maximum tolerable daily intake) of 0.4 µg/kg body weight per day.

They reached this decision as follows: The PMTDI of 0.4 µg/kg body weight was established based on a NOEL (no observed effect level) of 43 µg/kg body weight per day and an additional safety factor of 100.

What does this mean? 

Interpreting these figures is important. This means that at a level of 43 µg/kg body weight per day, there is no observed effect of harm or damage done for example to functionality, growth, development and lifespan of the organism in question (in this case, humans). Following this, JECFA added an additional safety margin of a factor of 100, which then provides for a 100-fold lower level than the NOEL. 

This essentially means that 0.4 µg/kg body weight per day is a 100-fold lower level than the level of patulin that shows no observed negative effect in the human body, thereby creating a large safety margin.

Is patulin regulated in South Africa? 

South Africa does indeed regulate patulin in apple juice. The maximum permitted level follows that of the CAC i.e. not more than 50 micrograms per litre of apple juice and apple juice ingredients in other beverages….

Anelich Consulting: Read the full article here

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