Luncheon Meat and Sausages with High Sodium Contents are Harmful Veterinary Drug Residues Found in 1 Sample

15 June 2017
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Luncheon Meat and Sausages with High Sodium Contents are Harmful Veterinary Drug Residues Found in 1 Sample

Although processed meat has been classified as Group 1 carcinogens to humans by the World Health Organisation since 2015, processed meat such as luncheon meat and sausages are still popular choices in the daily meals of Hong Kong people.  The Consumer Council tested samples of 25 models of luncheon meat and 8 models of canned sausages.  It was found that the majority of the samples are high in sodium and fat content.  The difference in sodium content among the luncheon meat samples could be double of others.  The test also found that veterinary drug residues containing antibiotics existed in 1 luncheon meat sample and sodium content of 1 sausage sample exceeded the labelled amount by 560 times.  This finding was passed to the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) for follow-up actions.

Test items included antibiotics, sodium nitrite and sodium content.  Nutrition labels of the samples were also reviewed.  None of the samples was found to contain heavy metals, β-agonist, hormones or carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene.

In 1 luncheon meat sample, veterinary drug residues, in the forms of sulfonamide antibiotics sulfadimidine, were detected at 199.3μg/kg.  According to the recommendation of the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives, acceptable daily intake (ADI) of sulfadimidine should not exceed 0.05mg/kg of the body weight. An adult weighing 60kg has to take about 15kg each day to reach the limit. To calculate on the basis of the sulfadimidine amount detected in the sample, such an amount is equivalent to 38 cans of this model.

Sulfadimidine is commonly used to treat pigs with atrophic rhinitis and to facilitate their growth and weight gain.  Although studies have found that male rats and pigs would develop thyroid related disorder after high-dosage of sulfadimidine was administered, the chance for such impact developing on humans is low.  Nevertheless, allergic reactions to sulfonamide antibiotics could still occur in about 3% to 6% of the population and they may experience symptoms like hives, rash and swollen face, mouth and tongue.   Besides, it creates higher risks for antibiotic-resistant bacteria survival in human body.

Sodium content in the 25 tested luncheon meat samples differed from 517mg to 1,180mg per 100g, a two-fold difference, with an average of 718mg per 100g.  For an adult, the WHO recommends that daily intake of sodium should not exceed 2,000mg.  As for 1 sample, consumption of only half would exceed the recommended daily limit.  Sodium content of the sausage samples ranged between 707mg to 851mg per 100g.

The Council compared test results with the nutrition label information of the products, 6 luncheon meat samples were found to have higher sodium content than the manufacturers' claims, with 1 model higher than the amount shown on the label by 25%.  In addition, it was found that the nutrition label information was incorrect in 1 sausage sample, in which the sodium content (851mg/100g) exceeded the content shown on the label (1.5mg/100g) by 560 times.  According to the CFS guideline, sodium content must not exceed the amount stated on nutrition label by more than 20%.

3 luncheon meat samples have "less sodium" claims on their labels, with sodium content detected at 554mg, 585mg, and 699mg per 100g, respectively.  Although their sodium content are lower than the average amount (718mg/100g) found in all luncheon meat models, sodium content of 1 sample is still higher than the level of "high sodium" as specified by the UK's Food Standards Agency (600mg/100g) while the remaining 2 are close to such specified level.  The Council reminds consumers to be cautious when interpreting such nutrient comparative claims, to avoid over-consuming.

Furthermore, the test also discovered that sodium nitrite was added to the canned meat to avoid the growth of bacteria and preserve colouring.  In the test, 6 luncheon meat and 3 sausage samples were found containing sodium nitrite, albeit at levels below the National Standard of People's Republic of China, i.e. not exceeding 70mg/kg for Western-style canned ham.   Excessive intake of sodium nitrite could cause methemoglobinemia which leads to reduced oxygen in blood, causing headache and breathing difficulty.

Luncheon meat and sausages are typical Hong Kong style breakfast choices.  The Council takes reference of the samples with the highest sodium content.  Assuming an adult has 2 slices of luncheon meat and 2 sausages, weighing 75g and 45g respectively before cooking, as parts of his breakfast.  Sodium content of these luncheon meat and sausages are 885mg and 383mg respectively, and the combined amount reached 1,268mg.  This takes up more than 60% of the daily intake limit recommended by the WHO.  If the breakfast comes with bread or instant noodles, intake of sodium could have possibly exceeded the daily limit already.

As shown in this study, most luncheon meat products are high in sodium and fat content, consuming an excessive amount of these foods, over a long period of time, may increase exposure to health risks such as obesity, coronary heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.  The Council advises consumers to maintain a balanced and diverse diet by avoiding processed meat, and eating more vegetables and fruits to reduce risks in contracting cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The Council calls on manufacturers to attach greater importance to the quality of ingredients and to avoid using meat containing antibiotics or veterinary drugs.  Manufacturers can also improve formulations so as to reduce the amount of salt addition to provide healthier choices for consumers.

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