Thursday, October 16, 2003

A jarring panic

Do baby food containers cause cancer?

'Cancer fears over baby food jars', reported BBC News on 15 October 2003. It follows a warning from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that traces of a carcinogenic substance, semicarbazide, had been found in glass jars with metal lids. The EFSA said that parents need not stop feeding children food bought in these kinds of containers, but hoped that manufacturers might reconsider their use. However, the UK's Food Standards Agency says '...parents may understandably be concerned by the continuing uncertainty, which may lead some parents to choose alternative food for their babies.' The FSA goes to offer advice on how to prepare baby food from scratch.

The EFSA initially reported on the presence of semicarbazide back in July 2003. At that time, they stated that there was very little hard information about semicarbazide, other than that it appeared to produce cancer in female rats (but not male rats). Where specific doses are mentioned, adverse effects in rats were found at concentrations 1000 times or more above those found in baby food. Hence, the EFSA could quite reasonably say that, 'There is no risk of immediate illness to adults, children or infants from consumption of foods containing semicarbazide.'

What is worse is that the EFSA report goes on to point out potential problems if jarred foods were rejected: 'There is a possibility that the foods which would be chosen instead might be either not nutritionally equivalent to the foods used before or not suitable for the feeding of infants.' The EFSA has therefore been careful to say that parents should continue to use these foods. However, how are parents supposed to react if the EFSA also thinks the problem is serious enough to ask manufacturers to reconsider how they make these products?

The UK Food Standards Agency advice seems to make things worse. Now it suggests parents should make their own baby food. However, in doing so they will immediately walk into a minefield of preparation rules. Simply producing small quantities of adult food is not good enough, apparently. Previously-warmed food must not be reheated once prepared, but must be allowed to cool. Excess salt and sugar, eggs, wheat-based foods, nuts, seeds, honey, fish, shellfish and citrus fruits should all be avoided, especially in the first six months. No wonder parents love those little jars.

Thus the EFSA fall into a familiar trap. First, a possible risk is identified, which at worst is very small. Then, a precautionary response is initiated, which is made public. The result is a reaction which is worse than the potential risk first mentioned. Surely it would be better for these experts to proceed in private until they have established whether there is a significant risk or not rather than have this incontinent production of 'preliminary advice' in the interests of openness?

Cancer fears over baby food jars, BBC News, 15 October 2003

Update on semicarbazide in glass jars, UK Food Standards Agency, 15 October 2003

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