Around 60 products have been recalled due to contamination with a cancer-causing substance in one of the most widespread recalls to date, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

Ethylene oxide was first detected on sesame seeds in Belgium in 2020 – coming from India – and has since been found in a widely-used thickening agent, locust bean gum and other foodstuffs, leading to thousands of products being pulled off the shelves across the EU.

In Malta, the products so far recalled are batches of popular brands of ice-creams, such as Twix, Toblerone and Milka, alternative milks, crackers, biscuits, cream, cream cheeses, and instant noodles.

However, in other EU member states, spices, vegetables, cereals and oils are among a range of other products that have also been affected.

“The issue with ethylene oxide is definitely one of the most widespread recalls locally because several products from various companies are implicated,” health ministry spokesperson Roberta Fenech said.

While ethylene oxide is used to disinfect food in a number of countries outside the European Union zone, it is not allowed in EU food production and residues in food violate European food law. 

Fenech explained that publicly available information on the hazard profile of the substance indicates that it is a genotoxic carcinogen, for which no safety threshold can be established.

In most cases, the ethylene oxide levels are very low and sometimes not even detectable in the final product but, in line with the European Union, if the level of ethylene oxide in the raw material exceeds the level of 0.1mg/kg, it needs to be recalled, she said.

Agricultural chemistry professor Everaldo Attard told Times of Malta that a genotoxic carcinogen causes damage to the DNA and turns a normal cell into a cancerous cell.

This does not necessarily mean that the cell will cause cancer, he explained, since our body is set up to regularly repair any faults in the DNA.

Neither does this mean that ingesting one product contaminated with ethylene oxide would put the person at great risk, he added.

“There would be an issue if these products were consumed on a regular basis,” he said.

Asked why Malta had recalled 60 products when other EU member states, such as France, had recalled over 7,000, Attard said that Malta’s market was much smaller and imported a limited range of products.

Matthew Attard, commercial manager of Francis Busuttil and Sons, which import a range of popular ice-creams, said the company only had to recall batches of five products as a result of the contamination, namely Twix, Bounty and Snickers sixpacks and Snickers and Twix ice-cream bars.

“Luckily, the recall was on a limited number of batches from which we had stocks that were still in our warehouse and placed on hold as soon as we were made aware of the issue.

“This limited the distribution of the affected batches in the market,” he said.

Attard said that, while the levels of the contaminant were low, the recall was being treated seriously in line with the law and with consumers’ interests at heart.

The list of affected products and batches have been shared on the Environmental Health Directorate's Facebook page. 

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