Ethylene Oxide in Food Additives Causing Recalls in Europe

European governments are recalling food additives containing ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen.

James R. Hood
James R. Hood

European governments are ordering safety recalls of foods contaminated with ethylene oxide, a toxic substance that public health officials say is not safe to consume in any quantity.

The recalls are linked to a food additive that's used in a wide range of products including ice cream, cereal, crackers, spices and bagels.

The substance was used to reduce or eliminate microbiological contamination with Salmonella, according to a report in Food Safety News. The use of ethylene oxide for disinfection of food is not permitted in Europe.

In the U.S., it is listed in the FDA's Food Additive List as as a stabilizing agent in flavor concentrates, in bakery products as a dough conditioner and as a defoaming agent in scald baths for defeathering poultry.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has charged that ethylene oxide is among the "known cancer-causing chemicals, or carcinogens, are legally allowed in personal care products." California's Prop. 65 identifies it as a concern for both cancer and developmental toxicity in both females and males.

An odorless, colorless gas

Ethylene oxide, an odorless, colorless gas, is used to disinfect surgical instruments and in other specialized industrial uses. Its use in food is not permitted in Europe. It is found in tobacco smoke, automobile exhausts, cosmetics and foods.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency says it "has concluded that ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans by the inhalation route of exposure. Evidence in humans indicates that exposure to ethylene oxide increases the risk of lymphoid cancer and, for females, breast cancer."

Lymphoma and leukemia are the cancers most frequently reported to be associated with occupational exposure to ethylene oxide. Stomach and breast cancers may also be associated with ethylene oxide exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Experts in Europe reportedly said that there is no safe level of exposure for consumers in products that contain the additive known to be contaminated with ethylene oxide and any level people may be faced with presents a potential risk. This means food or feed businesses who have put such products on the EU market need to withdraw and recall them, according to the European Commission.

Ethylene oxide scandal spreads to food additive
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James R. Hood

Jim is a publishing entrepreneur and journalist. He founded ConsumerAffairs in 1998 and earlier was the founder of Zapnews, after holding executive posts at the Associated Press.