The UK Food Standards Agency is calling for a ban on pistachio nuts imported from Iran following a survey which found high levels of cancer-causing mycotoxins in 10% of pistachio samples.
The agency said that the offending products have already been removed from sale but it is now asking the European Commission (EC) to consider re-instating its 1997 ban on Iranian pistachios.
Mycotoxins are produced by certain moulds growing on food crops. Many are genotoxic carcinogens which cause cancer by damaging DNA.
The worrying mycotoxin levels in Iranian pistachios were discovered during the FSA's recent surveys of nuts, nut products and dried tree fruit in 2000 and 2001. Some 227 product samples were assessed for the levels of a number of mycotoxins including the most toxic, Aflatoxin B1.
Aflotoxin B1 concentrations above the regulatory limit of 2mg/kg were found in 13% of samples in the initial survey in 2000, while in the follow-up study in 2001, the figure was 9%.
The pistachios found with levels of B1 over the regulatory limit were Balham Wholefoods raw pistachios, Natco Pistachio Kernels, and Rainbow Wholefoods Roasted and Salted Pistachios. The FSA requested that the affected pistachios were withdrawn and recalled, and the EC issued alerts in all 15 Member States.
A principal cause for concern for the FSA was the fact that all the affected samples were from Iran, despite the fact that imports from there are rigorously tested following the temporary ban in 1997.
The EC's own data shows that 67 alerts were issued for Iranian pistachios in 2001, 36% of the total alerts on mycotoxins. With this in mind, the FSA has asked the Commission to consider re-imposing the temporary suspension of Iranian pistachios.
Meanwhile, the FSA said it had warned two peanut butter manufacturers that the mycotoxin levels in some of their products were too high, although it stressed that there was no immediate risk to health.
"Extra vigilance is needed to ensure levels of mycotoxins in peanut butter are kept below the regulatory limit." the agency said in a statement. "However, the consumption of a very small amount of a mycotoxin on a single occasion is unlikely to cause any ill effects."
The FSA will now meet with the peanut butter manufacturers to ensure that their quality control and quality assurance regimes are adequate to ensure that mycotoxin levels are kept to a minimum.
The agency also plans to meet enforcement authorities, including local councils, to urge them to carry out more checks on peanut butters.