Most consumers not affected

The Food Standards Agency has advised consumers to avoid certain soy sauce products following a retail survey which found high levels of potentially cancer causing chemicals in nearly a quarter of samples. The majority of samples taken had none of these contaminants whatsoever and none of the products sampled from major retail chains posed any safety concerns. Of the 100 samples, 22 gave cause for concern.

The survey, conducted last year, found 3-MCPD, common in many foods, at levels well over the EC legal limit that comes into effect on 1st April 2002. Of the samples found with 3-MCPD, about two thirds also contained a cancer causing chemical 1,3-DCP which experts advise should not be present at any levels in food.

The affected products are imported from Thailand, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan and mostly sold in shops specialising in oriental foods. It is also alleged that some of the products are counterfeit. Although a quarter of samples taken posed concern, the actual proportion of the UK market taken by these products is thought to be very small.

The Agency is taking action to ensure that the products identified are removed from sale and that consumers do not use them. The chemicals could cause harm to people who use these products with most of their meals on a daily basis over a long period of time. Occasional consumers are unlikely to be harmed.

All of the details of the products are available from the FSA website at www.foodstandards.gov.uk

Agency Deputy Chair, Suzi Leather said:

" We want to ensure that consumers of these products are informed of the risks and that effective action is taken to protect them. All of the affected products should be removed from the shelves and consumers should throw away any that they may have.

"I want to stress that only a limited range of soy products are affected. We are particularly concerned to protect people who have high levels of consumption, as they will be most at risk from the harmful effects of these chemicals. This is most likely to be people from East and South East Asian communities.

"Soy sauce can be produced without these chemicals and we expect swift action from the industry to ensure that the planned EU legal limits are met. "

Following the survey the Agency has taken action to protect consumers:

  • advising consumers of what products to avoid and issuing leaflets to the communities most affected
  • issuing a Food Hazard Warning asking local enforcement officers to remove any of the products that may still be on sale
  • advising caterers that they should not use any of the affected products
  • placing brand names and photos of the relevant products on the Agency website
  • advising retailers to request proof from suppliers that soy sauce products sold to them have been tested for and don't exceed planned legal limits.
  • planning a follow up survey of soy sauce products

The survey, part of the Agency's ongoing work to protect consumers, is a follow up to an earlier survey of 3-MCPD in soy sauces but is the first time we have tested for 1,3-DCP. Previous surveys of levels in other foods have shown 3-MCPD to be present in foods such as biscuits, breads, cheeses and burgers, but usually at much lower levels.

3-MCPD has the potential to cause cancer. A legal limit of 0.02mg/kg (based on a 40% dry matter component in the sauce) was agreed in March 2001 and due to come into force April 2002. The European Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) have recently agreed a TDI (Tolerable Daily Intake) of 0.02 mg/kg body weight. Consumption of 10 ml/day (two teaspoons) of the product with the highest levels in the survey would therefore exceed this TDI by 10-20 fold.

1,3-DCP, is thought to be genotoxic (disrupts DNA) which means there is no tolerable intake and the likelihood of it causing cancer if consumed over a long period of time is higher. 1,3-DCP is only found where 3-MCPD is present, and always at much lower levels.

Both 3-MCDP and 1,3-DCP belong to a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Their presence in soy sauce is avoidable. They are usually produced by the addition of Acid Hydrolysed Vegetable protein to accelerate production. Other sources are acid hydrolysis of some or all of the soya bean/wheat and the toasting of the wheat component.