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Baby food packaging prompts cancer fears

But risk low, says European agency

LONDON -- 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.

However, 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 Dr. 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, as a precaution, 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 -- free of the chemical -- on supermarket shelves worldwide within six months.

The US 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."

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.

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