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Baby food jar lids draw concern over possibility of causing cancer

Published October 15, 2003

LONDON (AP) - Europe's food safety agency recommended yesterday
that baby food manufacturers change the lids on their jars as soon
as possible because of cancer concerns over a chemical found in
some food packed in bottles and jars.

The European Food Safety Authority said there was no need for
parents to stop using infant food because any cancer risk was
extremely low and the jars have an excellent safety record for
germs and other contaminants.

The chemical, semicarbazide, has been found in very small
quantities in certain foods packaged in jars with metal lids
incorporating plastic vacuum seals, a type of packaging used
worldwide for more than 20 years.

Semicarbazide, or SEM, belongs to a family of chemicals known to
cause cancer in animals. One study has shown it can cause tumors in
mice. No human studies have been conducted. The European Food
Safety Authority is the first organization to have taken a close
look at the risks posed by the chemical.

Although the amount in food is uncertain and its human health
effects unknown, scientists investigating on behalf of the European
food agency concluded the danger is very slight.

A baby's estimated daily intake of semicarbazide, based on the
concentrations found in infant food, was at least 40,000 times less
than the dose given to the mice in the tumor study.

"The risk to consumers resulting from the possible presence of
semicarbazide in foods, if any, is judged to be very small, not
only for adults but also for infants," said Sue Barlow, chair of
the European Food Safety Authority expert panel.

"Nevertheless," the agency said in a statement, "experts believe
it would be prudent to reduce the presence of semicarbazide in baby
foods as swiftly as technological progress allows."

The agency also recommended the industry change the lids for
other products, after baby foods have been tackled.

Besides baby food, bottled foods found to have traces of
semicarbazide included fruit juices, jams, sterilized vegetables,
pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, sauces and ketchup. However, baby
food had by far the strongest concentrations, probably because the
contact between the food and the seal is more significant - the
jars are small, but the cap still has to be big enough to fit a
spoon in.

The Food and Drink Federation, a London-based European industry
organization, said that an industry task force is now working with
the authorities to eliminate semicarbazide from the metal twist
caps.

American manufacturer Heinz, which makes baby food and other
products in jars, said it is already testing alternative caps and
hopes to have new jars on supermarket shelves worldwide within six
months.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said consumers should not
avoid food packaged in glass jars. "At this time, FDA's preliminary
conclusion is that the levels of semicarbazide reported in foods in
Europe are very low and present no risk to the public health," the
agency said in a statement. "FDA is presently examining foods in
this country and is continuing to assess the potential toxicity of
semicarbazide in food."

The concern over semicarbazide was brought to light by the
European food industry in July.

"Our vigilance revealed through routine monitoring that traces
of semicarbazide - SEM - had been found in food and drinks sold in
glass jars. We immediately brought this to the attention of the
food standards authorities," said Martin Paterson, deputy director
general of the Food and Drink Federation.

The food agency then launched its own investigation, reviewing
the evidence and conducting its own experiments on jars of several
types of food.

Scientists believe semicarbazide is produced during the heat
treatment used to make sealing gaskets in the twist caps of glass
jars and bottles. The chemical seems to leach from the plastic into
the food, the food agency said.

The plastic gasket is considered crucial in maintaining the seal
and ensures the safety of the product throughout its shelf
life.

"The industry, including Heinz, are committed to a rapid and
safe transition to a SEM-free cap," said Michael Mullen, general
manager of corporate affairs for Heinz Europe. "The key here is to
make sure it's a safe transition.

"We're not rushing into a cap that could give us other (germ)
issues. Our main focus is to make sure that we come up with a cap
alternative that is 100 percent microbiologically safe and that
meets all the needs of that cap," he said.

The Food and Drink Federation recommended the European
Commission monitor the food industry to ensure companies replace
the current type of seals swiftly, focusing on baby foods as an
immediate priority.

The Washington-based industry group Grocery Manufacturers of
America said it was wise to find substitute seals.

"We believe that finding substitutes is a prudent step that our
members can take," said Dr. Mark Nelson, the group's vice president
for scientific and regulatory affairs. "We agree ... the low level
of risk makes it unnecessary for anyone to change their diets and
are pleased that their statement reassures consumers."