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Nearly All Dried Meat Snack Samples High in Sugar and Sodium Over 40% Found with Possibly Carcinogenic Contaminants Over 40% Found with Possibly Carcinogenic Contaminants

  • 2023.03.15

Meat jerky, meat floss and meat crisps are all tasty treats that are almost impossible to stop eating. The Consumer Council tested the food safety and nutrient content of 30 samples of meat jerky, meat floss and meat crisps, and found that over 40% (13 samples) were detected with the possibly carcinogenic contaminant Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), with the highest level found in 1 beef jerky sample with a total of 4 PAHs exceeding the European Union (EU) limit by over 50%. 1 pork crisps sample was also found with the metabolite AOZ of the non-permitted veterinary drug furazolidone and consumption should be avoided. Besides, although all samples were high-protein foods, they were also high in sugar, and over 95% were high in sodium. Consumers should be mindful about the consumption amount of processed meat products such as jerky, floss, and crisps to reduce risks of colorectal cancer.

From October to November 2022, the Council sourced 10 pork jerky, 8 beef jerky, 8 pork floss and 4 pork crisps samples from major retail outlets at prices from $11.5 to $170 per packet, equivalent to $13.7 to $96.8 per 100g in terms of the unit price, representing a substantial disparity. The samples were tested for food safety, including levels of PAHs, residue levels of veterinary drugs and preservatives, as well as nutrient content, including sugar, sodium, total fat, saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and protein. Test results showed that lowest and highest-priced samples (per 100g) both received an overall rating of 4.5 points, reflecting that affordable products can be of good quality as well.

Over 40% of Dried Meat Snacks Found with Possibly Carcinogenic Contaminant PAHs

PAHs are formed when proteins, carbohydrates, fats and other organic substances decompose under high temperature during meat processing. Among them, benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) has been classified as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1), while benz[a]anthracene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, and chrysene have been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B). However, Hong Kong and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) have yet to set an upper limit for the concentration of PAHs in smoked meat and smoked meat products, thus the current test used EU regulation as reference.

Results showed that PAHs were detected in over 40% of the samples (13), including 9 pork jerky and 4 beef jerky samples, with the total level of 4 PAHs[1] (“PAH4”) ranging from 0.6µg/kg to 18.2µg/kg (EU maximum level: 12µg/kg), of which 7 pork jerky and 2 beef jerky samples were detected with the Group 1 carcinogen B[a]P at levels ranging from 0.5µg/kg to 1.9µg/kg (EU maximum level: 2.0µg/kg). 1 beef jerky sample was found with the highest PAH4 content of 18.2µg/kg, exceeding the EU limit by over 50%, while its B[a]P content was 1.9µg/kg, also very close to the EU limit. The Council urges manufacturers to regularly review their manufacturing process to reduce PAHs content in products to protect public health. Consumers should also think twice before consuming dried meat snacks and other barbecued meats, and remove burnt parts before consumption to reduce the intake of PAHs.

Metabolites of Banned Veterinary Drug Found in 1 Meat Crisps Sample

Nitrofurans are antimicrobial agents commonly used as veterinary drugs which has been prohibited for use in food-producing animals in many regions, including the Mainland, the EU, the United States, Canada, and Australia. The levels of 4 nitrofuran metabolites were tested, including nitrofurantoin metabolite (AHD), furaltadone metabolite (AMOZ), furazolidone metabolite (AOZ), and nitrofuranzone metabolite (SEM). In Hong Kong, the Harmful Substances in Food Regulations stipulate that furaltadone should not be detected (0μg/kg) in the muscle of porcine (pigs) and poultry, and furazolidone should not be detected (0μg/kg) in the muscle, liver, and kidney of bovine (cattle), porcine and poultry, whereas the EU’s Reference Point for Action (RPA) is 0.5μg/kg.

Tests showed that AOZ was detected in 1 pork crisps sample at levels of 0.95µg/kg, which did not comply with legal requirements and exceeded the EU’s RPA. The Joint FAO/WTO Expert Committee on Food Additives(JECFA) quoted evidence that furazolidone is genotoxic and could increase incidents of cancer in experimental animals, though there is inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity to humans. As there is no internationally recognised acceptable daily intake level, for the sake of caution, the Council recommends consumers to avoid consuming foods detected with furazolidone metabolites. The Council also urged manufacturers to be more vigilant in monitoring the safety of raw materials used and to step up testing to ensure their products meet local regulatory requirements.

Pork Crisps Found with the Highest Sugar and Sodium Content

Dried meat snacks are delectable because of the various types of seasonings added. All samples were found to reach “high sugar” levels (i.e. more than 15g sugars per 100g solid food sample), with sugar content ranging from 18.3g to 47.2g per 100g. The highest was found in 1 pork crisps sample, the content of which translated to around 1.9 cubes of sugar (9.4g of sugar) in the sample’s recommended serving (20g) for adults, accounting for about 19% of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended upper limit of free sugars intake for an adult on a 2,000kcal daily diet (daily free sugars intake should be less than 50g). If one whole packet (67g) is consumed, the sugar intake would be equivalent to about 6.3 cubes (31.6g of sugar), about 63% of the WHO’s recommended upper limit.

In addition, all samples except 1 meat floss sample were high in sodium (i.e. more than 600mg sodium per 100g solid food sample), with sodium content ranging from 715mg to 1,900mg per 100g. The highest sodium content was found in 1 pork crisps sample, which would incur a sodium intake of 1,900mg in the recommended serving for adults (100g), equivalent to 95% of the WHO’s recommended daily intake limit. Combined with sodium intake from other foods, it is estimated that an adult eating a portion of the aforementioned pork crisps sample would have exceeded the WHO’s recommended daily sodium intake (less than 2,000mg sodium). The only sample that was not high in sodium was 1 meat floss sample (573mg sodium) but it was in fact very close to the “high-sodium” level. This and another meat floss sample were found to be high-fat foods (i.e. more than 20g total fat per 100g food sample), each with 21g fat per 100g. However, as the serving size of meat floss is generally smaller, the total fat intake upon consuming the recommended serving size is not too high. The case for pork crisps is different, as the sample with the highest total fat content per recommended serving size (i.e. 100g) contained 18.4g total fat per serving, which reached 27.6% of the WHO’s recommended upper limit (the daily total fat intake should be not more than 66.7g for an adult on a 2,000kcal daily diet). Consumers should exercise restraint when enjoying these snacks.

On the other hand, all samples were high in protein (i.e. not less than 12g protein per 100g solid food sample). However, meat jerky, meat floss and meat crisps are all cured for flavour, making most of them high in sugar and sodium. As such, consumers should reduce consumption and are advised not to treat these types of food as a source of protein.

Use or Labelling of Preservatives of Some Samples Not in Accordance with Regulations

Preservatives may be added during the preparation of meat snacks to slow down bacterial growth and prevent spoilage. The Hong Kong Preservatives in Food Regulation (“Preservatives Regulation”) stipulates the maximum permitted levels of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate for heat-treated cured meat and comminuted meat products at 125mg/kg and 500mg/kg respectively. The Preservatives Regulation also provides that sorbic acid and benzoic acid shall not be used in heat-treated cured meat and comminuted meat products but are permitted in soy sauce and certain seasonings; while sulphur dioxide shall not be used in heat-treated cured meat. Furthermore, according to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations(“Labelling Regulations”), preservatives in prepackaged food must be labelled in the list of ingredients.

Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate levels detected in all tested samples were lower than the upper limits stipulated in the Preservatives Regulation. However, 8 samples were detected with sorbic acid or benzoic acid. The detected levels of sorbic acid ranged from 4.34mg/kg to 1,870 mg/kg, while the detected levels of benzoic acid ranged from 5.94mg/kg to 146mg/kg. Amongst these samples, only 1 listed sodium benzoate in soy sauce in its list of ingredients, while the rest found with benzoic acid had no indication in their list of ingredients. Although it is possible that the preservatives detected were from soy sauce and seasonings, theLabelling Regulations have not exempted this situation from identification in the ingredients list. The 2 beef jerky samples with the highest sorbic acid levels were detected with 1,710mg/kg and 1,870mg/kg respectively, believed to be added directly to the product and not originated from other ingredients. As such, this might be in violation of the Preservatives Regulation.

The Labelling Regulations also stipulate that if a prepackaged food contains sulphite in a concentration of 10mg/kg or more (usually measured in the amount of sulphur dioxide residue), the functional class of the sulphite and its name shall be specified in the list of ingredients. 1 sample was detected with 19.5mg/kg of sulphur dioxide, which might have been introduced into the product by other raw ingredients, yet had no indication in the list of ingredients in accordance with regulations.

Nutrition Labelling of Over Half the Samples Non-compliant with Guidance

Upon reviewing the labelling on the samples, 16 were found with discrepancies between the labelled nutrient values and actual nutrient content that did not comply with the requirements of the Technical Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling and Nutrition Claims. 1 sample was labelled with 4mg sodium per 50g (i.e. 8mg sodium per 100g), but the test result showed a sodium content of 1,640mg, 204 times higher than labelled. The same sample’s labelled sugar content was 6g per 50g (i.e. 12g per 100g), yet the actual sugar content detected was 38.1g, over 2 times higher than labelled. The Council stresses that it is a fundamental consumer right to receive correct product information. Inaccurate labelling of nutrition information may lead to unknowing consumption of more sugar, sodium, fat, etc. than anticipated. The Council urges relevant manufacturers to improve immediately.

All safety test results and labelling problems found were sent to the Centre for Food Safety for follow-up.

Jerky, meat floss and meat crisps are all delicious treats, yet processed meat products are Group 1 carcinogens and generally high in sugar and sodium. According to the WHO, a diet with more fruits and vegetables, and less processed and red meats is consequential for the prevention of many kinds of cancer. Consumers are recommended to pay heed, maintain a balanced diet and avoid overconsumption of processed meats to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

[1] Benzo[a]pyrene, benz[a]anthracene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, and chrysene



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