The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and disinfectants Act No. 54 of 1972  requires that food marketed to humans is not injurious to health. This is a “catch all” statement – so where no specific regulation exists, in court the onus would be on the producer to ensure the food is safe for human consumption.
Codex defines a contaminant as “Any substance not intentionally added to food or feed for food producing animals, which is present in such food or feed as a result of the production (including operations carried out in crop husbandry, animal husbandry and veterinary medicine), manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, packaging, transport or holding of such food or feed, or as a result of environmental contamination.” Interestingly they exclude physical contamination such as insect fragments and rodent hair. (CODEX STAN 193-1995)
Currently there are many South African regulations that deal with contaminants including: heavy metals (R500 of 2004), pesticides (R246 of 2005) colourants (R1008 of 1999), hydrocarbons (R230 of 1977) and toxins; even allergens in the labelling regulations (R146 of 2010) could be classed under contaminants.
Rather than expecting a complete absence of a contaminant, regulations often state a permissible level for a specific food group, or all foodstuffs. So it is vital to understand that if a limit exists in a certain product group, this does not mean that other groups are not regulated. Thus, other groups should not contain the contaminant. For example preservatives are permitted in certain food categories, but considered contaminants in similar categories.
This was certainly true for the Pimaricin in export wine case (2009). Pimaricin, commonly used to preserve fruit juices and fruit concentrate was found in some export wines; it was present due to the addition of grape concentrate, occasionally used in the winemaking process. Although allowed in South African wines it is prohibited in some countries.
In some cases regulations do not exist for contaminants, either as the need for regulation has not yet arisen, or because no amount of contamination should be allowed. Two examples that illustrate this point are Sudan red and melamine. When these scares hit in 2005 and 2008 respectively, industry started looking for regulations specifying limits for these compounds.
Sudan red is a colourant used in various industries mainly oil and gas, and should never be in contact with food. As such, there was, and still is, no need for it to be specifically legislated. No amount of Sudan red would be safe for consumption.
For melamine, no legislation existed at the time, but now R1054 of 2009 is in place. Apart from adulteration and food fraud, melamine may also come into contact with food through use of certain containers. Prior to this regulation the onus would have been on the producer to prove that a small amount is firstly safe in the product and secondly present purely due to unavoidable circumstances.
Whether added or unintentional, if it is harmful or not permitted, much like ‘a weed is just a misplaced plant’, these substances if present in foodstuffs are contaminants.
Article by: Norah Hayes
1. Regulations are listed under number and year of first print and should include all subsequent amendments.