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Navigating Food Safety Concerns in the Palm Oil Industry: Quality Assurance as a Path Forward

Posted: May 06, 2024 6 minute read Fransisca Tedjo 2 Likes

Ongoing advances in palm oil processing are helping to ensure that this widely used product can continue to meet increasingly stringent demands for food safety from customers, regulators, and ultimately, consumers.

The focus on palm oil has historically been on the challenge of deforestation linked to its production – a challenge that producing countries such as Indonesia are successfully addressing. Data from Trase Insights shows that deforestation linked to palm oil production in Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, is at its lowest level for a decade, while palm oil production has continued to increase.

What’s less widely known is the progress the palm sector has made in addressing food safety and quality concerns. Palm oil is found in 50 per cent of the products found on supermarket shelves, and the food and beverage sector is the largest consumer of palm oil products.

In my role as Head of National Food Safety and Quality at palm oil producer Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), I’m in regular contact with international food producers to understand and address their food safety concerns and to understand how we can continue to learn from others in the industry to improve our practices.

Through enhancing uptake of standards across palm oil production, close collaboration with customers, and harnessing technologies to tackle emerging food safety issues, palm oil producers can stay ahead of regulatory requirements to offer ingredients that match functionality with food safety.

Embedding Standards to Combat Contaminants

The presence of mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOH) in food products was identified as early as the 1990s, but has come under increasing scrutiny since 2012 when a study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) outlined its potential impacts on human health.

MOH comprise a number of chemical compounds derived mainly from petroleum distillation and refining, grouped into two main categories: mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH), which can accumulate in human tissue and may harm the liver, and mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) which are potentially carcinogenic.

Vegetable oils, including palm oil, were identified as having high levels of MOH, raising concerns for young people, especially infants fed with formula containing elevated MOSH levels – and leading to calls for bans in 2016.

The challenge for addressing MOSH and MOAH contamination is that these substances can enter food at any point during processing and storage – presenting a complex problem for food and ingredient manufacturers. MOH are not present in palm fresh fruit bunches (FFBs), the raw materials used to produce palm oil and derivative products, but can be introduced at points from raw materials to storage and transportation, and particularly from packaging materials – most commonly recycled packaging.

Ilustration of process of MOSH and MOAH entry into food
MOSH and MOAH can enter food at a number of points from raw material to finished product [via FoodDrinkEurope.eu]
In 2019 GAR launched a study to investigate MOSH and MOAH issues engaging a third-party laboratory in Germany, testing samples from our refineries to investigate mitigation options. Crucially, this study covered the entire supply chain – from refineries to owned mills and third-party mills – to identify points where contaminants could be introduced.

As a result, GAR has taken steps to address sources of MOAH or MOSH, putting in place monitoring to ensure that levels meet the safety standards set out by our customers and regulators. Mitigation steps are in place in six GAR refineries, with pilots in place at one mill and one kernel crushing plant to address possible contamination at the earliest stages of the production process.

Investment in quality assurance and quality control facilities and equipment, as well as implementing recognised standards, are another step towards addressing these risks. All of GAR’s refineries have implemented Quality and Food Safety Management System (ISO 22000/FSSC 22000) which takes MOSH/MOAH risks into consideration. At GAR’s R&D Centre in Marunda, near Jakarta in Indonesia, we have established ISO 17025-accredited R&D and Quality Control facilities to provide additional assurances on the steps taken to combat food safety risks.

Partnership Approach Key to Tackle Food Safety Risk

Beyond MOH, palm oil producers are also taking action to address other potentially harmful compounds such as 3-MCPD (3-Monochloropropane-1,2-diol) and Glycidyl Esters (GE) which can be formed during processing and refining of edible oils, particularly at high temperatures.

In 2021, the European Union put in place regulations to cap the presence of 3-MCPD in vegetable oils and fats to 2.5 parts per million (ppm). GE is limited to 1 ppm.

Ongoing collaboration between palm oil producers and customers has helped to drive down the presence of these potentially harmful byproducts by adopting internationally-approved identification methods to test for these substances.

Simultaneously, we are actively exploring and testing new mitigation technologies to address the EFSA’s risk assessment and other global regulations. GAR’s refineries have established a CPO washing process that is critical in removing the precursors of 3-MCPD to minimise risk later on in processing. For customers with the most stringent limits on 3-MCPD and GE levels beyond the levels required by the EU, GAR can reduce the presence of these compounds through low temperature deodorisation and alternative refining processes.

Harnessing Technology to Address Emerging Concerns

Embedding technologies including automation and AI into food safety operations is another area where palm oil can find significant opportunities to enhance safety standards while improving efficiency.

At GAR’s Lubuk Gaung palm oil refinery in Riau, Indonesia, a pilot project is using automation to reduce the risk of food fraud – one of the top three emerging food safety issues identified by regulatory intelligence network SGS Digicomply.

Each batch of CPO is tested for compliance with GAR’s quality standards when it arrives at our refineries. The automated Crude Palm Oil (CPO) sampling system is designed to minimise human intervention and reduce the risk of manipulation and contamination when receiving CPO – the unprocessed oil extracted from palm FFBs – from suppliers.

Automated CPO sampling
Automated CPO sampling helps to combat food fraud while enhancing efficiency compared to manual processes.

Rather than collecting samples manually from individual trucks, a process that can involve operators climbing on top of the truck to access the right spot to take their sample, the automated CPO sampling system uses probes to take a sample at multiple points, reducing sampling errors and removing risk for the operator in taking manual samples. The sampling process generates a unique identifier for each delivery, rather than relying on truck plate numbers, further reducing the potential for error and fraud.

The palm oil industry is actively engaged in addressing food safety concerns head on. By embedding rigorous standards, fostering partnerships, and embracing technological advancements, the industry can ensure the safety and quality of palm products while working with food and drink manufacturers to uphold the highest standards and meet the evolving demands of consumers worldwide.

Originally written by Fransisca Tedjo for Food & Drink Manufacturing UK. This article has been republished here with permission.

About the author

fransica tedjo

Fransisca Tedjo heads Golden Agri-Resources (GAR’s) National Quality Food Safety department. Based in Jakarta, she oversees all aspects of food safety and quality, including improvement projects to enhance quality processes, and ensures all our products meet industry food safety standards.

With over 20 years of experience in the quality assurance & food safety field, she is currently focused on transforming GAR’s palm oil refinery operations by establishing a fully integrated, digitalised system that will position the company at the forefront of Industry 4.0 innovation.

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