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Chlorine in food processing

Joint FAO/WHO Project to assess the benefits and risks of the use of 'active chlorine' in food production and processing

Full report now available here!

The 29th session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission requested FAO and WHO to provide scientific advice on the assessment of the benefits and risks of the use of active chlorine in food production and food processing. At FAO the Departments of Agriculture and Consumer Protection, Fisheries and Aquaculture and Natural Resources Management and Environment are collaborating on this project together with the WHO Departments of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases and of Public Health and the Environment.

The main goals of this project are to consider the risk of disinfection by-products (excluding environmental impact) versus the benefit of lowering the risk of microbial hazards, following the use of active chlorine for disinfection purposes in food production and processing. The efficacy of active chlorine treatment will be considered, taking into account different treatment scenarios, different chlorine-containing substances and different pathogens and pathogen/food combinations. These considerations need to be based on current practices, as well as take into account proposed new practices, including the relevance and feasibility of potential alternative approaches.

The term 'active chlorine', as it was used in the terms of reference of Codex, includes aqueous solutions of hypochlorous acid and its conjugate base, hypochlorite ion, chlorous acid and its conjugate base chlorite ion, chlorine gas or chlorine dioxide. Chloramine and dichloroisocyanurate may be included if of relevance in the food processing industry. As the term ‘active chlorine’ is not technically correct, the term has been replaced with ‘chlorine-containing disinfectants’.

Scope and Executive summary of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert meeting on chlorine-containing disinfectants used in food production and food processing, held in Ann Arbor, USA, 27-30 May 2008.

The expert meeting drew from the experience of 20 experts from 13 countries and was dedicated to assess the benefits of the reduction of foodborne disease risk by reduction and control of contamination of pathogenic microorganisms by direct treatment of food with disinfectants in various steps of food production and processing and to compare these benefits with the potential health risks from ingestion of chlorine and non-chlorine chemical disinfectants and their reaction by-products. The predominating world-wide treatment scenarios for poultry, red meat, fish and fishery products, fresh produce (fresh fruit and vegetables, including sprouts and hydroponics) and food contact surfaces were used in the assessment of the benefits and risks in a step-wise qualitative approach. The approach taken was identifying the most common disinfection practices for the relevant food categories; identification of possible chemical residues in foods resulting from these treatments and estimating dietary exposure to these residues; evaluation of efficacy of treatment in reduction in the prevalence and numbers of pathogenic micro-organisms on food and possible resulting decreased health risk. The strength of the evidence was evaluated in all cases. Potential health risk from chemicals exposure was then compared to potential benefits of decreased health risk from pathogen exposure in a systematic way. An extensive report is in preparation.

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