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34% of Dried Spices Contained Aflatoxins 2 Samples in Breach of Hong Kong Regulatory Limit

  • 2019.10.15

Spices can enhance aroma and colour of food, in particular Capsicum spp. spices and turmeric are essential ingredients for curry while nutmegs are often used for western pastries, such as pumpkin pies and puddings. The Consumer Council has tested 44 different dried spices available in the market and the results revealed the presence of aflatoxins and/or ochratoxin A in over half (23 samples) of the dried spice samples, including all 15 Capsicum spp. spices, 6 nutmegs and 2 turmeric. 4 samples contained total aflatoxins exceeding European (EU) regulatory limits, of which 2 also exceeded the Hong Kong regulatory limit. The test findings have since been referred to the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) for follow up. In addition, 4 samples were found to contain ochratoxin A exceeding the EU regulatory limits. Dried spice producers are urged to improve their production to minimise the chances of mycotoxin contamination arising from crop harvesting; drying and storage; food processing and packaging as well as transportation process. Moreover, they should ensure the purchase of raw materials from only reliable and reputable suppliers and preserving the finished products in good condition as well as avoiding excessive stock inventory.

Aflatoxins (AFs) and ochratoxin A (OTA) are mycotoxins produced by fungi. The test focused on their AFB1, B2, G1, G2 and OTA contents, and covered 44 models comprising 17 Capsicum spp. spices, 7 nutmeg samples, 5 mixtures of both spices, and 15 turmeric samples.

The test showed 15 samples to contain aflatoxins, among them 2 nutmeg samples were detected with total aflatoxins in the amount of 17.7 and 17.5 micrograms per kilo, exceeding the Hong Kong regulatory upper limit of 15 micrograms per kilo. The Council has notified the CFS of the test results for follow up. 

By making reference to the stricter EU regulations, the maximum concentration of aflatoxins in dried spices is set at 10 micrograms per kilo. In the test, 4 samples were detected with total aflatoxins in excess of the EU stipulated maximum concentration, from 14.4 to 17.7 micrograms per kilo. According to International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), AFs may affect the unborn through the foetus, while the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) pointed out AFs is a carcinogenic substance and recommended that its intake should be reduced to as low as reasonably possible. 

Aflatoxins comprise mainly 4 types: B1, B2, G1 and G2 of which the toxicity of B1 is deemed the highest. The EU’s permissible highest concentration of AFB1 is 5 micrograms per kilo. In the test, all samples with aflatoxins were found also to contain AFB1, of which 6 samples – 3 Capsicum spp. spices and 3 nutmeg samples – were found to exceed the EU limit by up to nearly twofold, ranging from 7.7 to 14.6 micrograms per kilo. The Council urges dried spice producers to take every effort immediately to lower the aflatoxins content in their products to safeguard food safety and consumer health.

In respect of ochratoxin A (OTA), there is currently no regulatory oversight on the maximum concentration of OTA in spice products in Hong Kong. According to the EU regulatory requirements, the permissible upper limit of OTA for Capsicum spp. spices is set at 20 micrograms per kilo while nutmeg, turmeric samples and mixtures of such spices are all limited to 15 micrograms. 

In the test on 44 samples of dried spices, the presence of OTA was found in 40% (18) of the samples, among them 2 Capsicum spp. spices and 2 nutmeg samples were both in breach of the EU upper limit. The IARC has classified OTA as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

The JECFA has stipulated the interim permissible weekly intake of OTA at 100ng per kilo of body weight. In the case of the nutmeg sample detected with the highest OTA (45mg/k), an adult of a body weight of 60kg, at the interim permissible weekly intake of 6mg, consuming continually 3/4 of a pack of nutmeg (133g) in a week will exceed the limit.

Although in normal meal consumption, the quantity of spice use is generally small and the risk of adverse effect on health is low, the high presence rate of aflatoxins  and ochratoxin A in spices, coupled with the opinion of the Codex Alimentarius Commission that the level of mycotoxins in spices needs to be reduced in accordance with its code of practice and suggests to set a limit to the concentration level of aflatoxins and ochratoxin A in Capsicum spp. Spices, nutmegs and turmeric, the Council hence hopes the relevant authorities will closely monitor the regulatory changes of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and other jurisdictions in relation to the level of mycotoxins content in spices, and review the amendment need of the regulation under current legislation.

Consumers in their cooking and choice of spices may take heed of the following:

- Inspect with care if the product packaging is intact, and if the spice is moldy or has an unusual appearance, discoloration or unpleasant strange odour. It should also be within its expiry date. Generally speaking, a whole spice intact can be preserved longer than spice powder;

- Once opened, the spice should be tightly closed and stored in a cool dry place; avoid excessive sunlight or humidity; stay away from hot cooking stoves; and finish the spice as quickly as possible;

- Spice powder may form lumps due to temperature difference, diminishing its flavor over time; it is therefore not suggested to keep the spice in the fridge. If your use of spice is in small quantity, choose to buy package of a smaller size;

- Maintain a balanced and diverse diet habit to avoid eating too much spices and intake of excessive mycotoxins.

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