Chemical contamination in food products

December 8, 2021

Chemicals and food rarely mix well together, and if you’re in the food supply industry, potential chemical contamination can pose a serious risk to not only your business but to the health and wellbeing of your customers too.

So, what are the most common food safety hazards, what effects can they have on those who are exposed to them, and is it best to self-manage the response or seek professional help? Read on to find out…

How and when can chemical contamination occur in food?

The food supply chain is sometimes a long one, and unfortunately chemical contamination can occur at many points along the way. From the moment plants are being grown or animals raised, they can take up chemical compounds from the soil, their food, or from their local environment. There is then the risk of contamination from packaging or processing equipment, incorrect food packaging, and even from the kitchen the food products are ultimately prepared in.

Chemical contamination in growing and sourcing

When plants grow, they take up groundwater and nutrients from the soil. However, along with the good stuff, they can also ingest heavy metals, pesticides or industrial chemical residues that are harmful to our health.

It can happen in commercial settings, or at home: old paint, fuels, and materials used to fill or level out house blocks can result in lead poisoning in even the most organic home garden. Industrial chemicals such as PFAS are another cause for concern––these substances can contaminate soil and groundwater, and then be absorbed by fruit and vegetables.

If you’re using herbicides or pesticides you must first determine if they are suitable for the pest or weed you wish to eradicate, that they are appropriate for the type of crop or animal you will apply it to, and that recommended usage rates as specified on the label, SDS and product information sheets are adhered to. It’s important to take note of the recommended withholding periods after application of the pesticide, herbicide, or animal medication as well – it can be harmful if the plant or animal is consumed before the withholding period has been completed.

As well as farmed produce, wild animals considered fit for consumption might also contain harmful chemicals. Larger fish such as tuna may pose a mercury poisoning risk to you if you eat it on a regular basis. Even animals that have been hunted, such as pheasants, can also be at risk of containing lead from bullets, and fish you have caught may be contaminated with lead from fishing gear. Many locations around the world have sought to place restrictions on the amount of lead and other contaminants in hunting and fishing items––you should always check the regulations and requirements for the area you are hunting or fishing in.

Chemical contamination in processing and packaging
Chemical contamination in processing and packaging

While how and where your food is grown represent two of the primary opportunities for potential chemical contamination, the processing and packaging of food is not without risk.

Damaged processing equipment, packaging breakages, leaks of oils or lubricants, and even incorrect storage of processing chemicals can also result in contamination.

Food packaging should be certified “food safe” and should also be fit for the type of food being packaged to ensure there is no leaching of harmful chemicals into the food.

Food additives and preservatives should also be carefully considered––for example some processing chemicals, food colourings, and emulsifiers are not safe for consumption, or should only be consumed in small amounts (ie nitrates). And remember––food regulations vary between regions, so what’s considered safe in one country may not be the case elsewhere.

Chemical contamination in the kitchen
Chemical contamination in the kitchen

A hygienic food preparation environment is not only essential in a commercial kitchen, but also in the home. But remember––clean doesn’t always mean risk free!

Some detergents and sterilisers may be effective for cleaning surfaces and food prep equipment  but can also contaminate food if not removed effectively before ingredients come into contact with the surface. In some instances, it can be better and safer to give food prep items a good scrub with hot, soapy water and then rinse off rather than rely on sanitisers that are not food safe.

Chemicals and their packaging can be affected by temperature variations, and by being kept in close proximity to oils, liquids, or even other chemicals, such as those they are incompatible with, like corrosive or acidic substances. It’s important to read the label (and SDS, particularly in industrial kitchens) and follow the correct storage instructions. It’s best to have a dedicated chemical or cleaning storage cupboard or area. Correct labelling of any chemical item is vital––if a product is decanted into a smaller container from a larger bulk vessel (such as cleaning sprays), or the original container label has been damaged or peeled off, it’s best to replace this with a label containing the correct information, particularly when the chemical is being used in the workplace.

The food prep items you use should also be considered. Not all plastics are food safe, nor all pots and pans––for example non-stick cookware contains PFAS. Other products may need to be stored in the appropriate glass or crockery containers. Take note of the type of food and the correct cooking and preparation techniques to avoid chemicals leaching into food from storage containers, cookware or serving ware.

How to minimise the risk of chemical contamination of food

Before you give up food altogether, rest assured there are ways to minimise the risk of chemical contamination so no health, income, or brand damage occurs.

To help avoid chemical hazards in food, you should:

1.      Read the label, plus SDS and product information sheets for chemical products.

This is where you find important information about the chemical, and how to use and store it safely.

2.      Follow the instructions provided by the chemical supplier.

If it advises storage in a cool, dry area away from certain types of chemicals, then be sure to follow the instruction. Follow withholding duration instructions after applications of pesticides and herbicides to plants and animals destined for consumption. Adhere to correct usage and dilution rates for chemicals.

3.      Take note of local rules and regulations surrounding chemicals, and the situations in which they can be used.

Make sure all pesticides, equipment, packaging, cleaning products, and additives/preservatives adhere to local standards and directives.  

4.     Take note of your neighbours, and how your site was used previously.

You may need to take extra precautions if your soil or water is contaminated, or neighbouring sites are using hazardous or dangerous chemicals. Similarly, shared ventilation in food processing or preparation environments needs to be addressed and monitored.

5.      Seek professional assistance.

In many cases, it might be best to err on the side of caution and engage professional help to address the safety practices of your business or home.

How can Chemwatch help you?

Now, about that professional help… we may not be food growers, but we can definitely assist with chemical safety amongst other things. We specialise in SDS management, risk assessment, 24/7 Emergency Response, asset management, Heat Maps, and much more. Contact us today on sales@chemwatch.net to find out more.

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