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Statement from IFFO in NRK program 2 - Rancidity of fish oil (16 November 2011)

This Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation television program makes a series of allegations implying that poor hygiene and practice right across the fish oil industry in Peru is reason for fish oil capsules tested in Norway being ‘more or less all rancid’. IFFO regards the program as unbalanced to the point of irresponsibility, failing to take into account the regulations that govern production and processing both in Peru and in Europe and not supporting broad allegations with hard evidence

November 23, 2011


This Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation television program makes a series of allegations implying that poor hygiene and practice right across the fish oil industry in Peru is reason for fish oil capsules tested in Norway being ‘more or less all rancid’. IFFO regards the program as unbalanced to the point of irresponsibility, failing to take into account the regulations that govern production and processing both in Peru and in Europe and not supporting broad allegations with hard evidence. 

For example: 

• Although the central focus of the program was rancidity in fish oil capsules, an interview with a NOFIMA* scientist in his laboratory about extensive sampling and testing that he had conducted did not include any results of analysis or other objective measure of oil quality. Instead, the fish oil capsules tested were described as “more or less all rancid”, a subjective, imprecise and very unscientific description.  

• Fish oil oxidation can occur at a number of points before reaching the final consumer and is not just a problem generated at source as implied in the program.  

• The program makers featured the early stages of landing and processing anchoveta but ignored the many later purification and refining stages that occur, especially for oil for human consumption. 

• Companies purchasing bulk fish oil for refining and encapsulation test every batch and would not purchase lots where rancidity exceeded their tight quality specifications. 

• Although rancidity is easily tested, there seemed to be no data on analysis of fish oil leaving factories to support the allegations of bad practice in factories.  

• Our view that the NRK program makers have been highly selective to the point of misrepresentation is supported by the fact that Norwegian officials have visited one of the plants mentioned in the previous program (9 November, NRK) and found nothing wrong. 

Below are some facts about the regulation of production and supply of fish oil: 

All fishery products shipped to Europe must meet stringent hygiene regulations as laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 1020/2008, including that fish used for oil must be fit for human consumption.

The accusation that the fish oils originating from Peru are oxidised is very misleading. In order to extract the fish oil from the whole fish, the first step in the plants involves the cooking of the fish in closed vessels at around 90° centigrade. The water content is reduced by centrifugation. This is standard practice in all fish oil factories throughout the world and, because it is carried out in the virtual absence of oxygen, results in minimal oxidation.  All factories in Peru exporting fish oil for human consumption to Europe are required to be inspected and to meet EU food hygiene regulations that have also been adopted by Norway. These include the requirement that raw material is fresh, the exclusion of birds and minimising the contact of the oil with air.  The crude oils are then shipped by a fleet of purpose built modern tankers to Europe and then further tested to ensure no significant oxidation has occurred prior to being sent for further processing which includes refining and concentration.  

There are two common measures of fish oil rancidity – Peroxide Value (PV) and Anisidine Value (AV), usually combined to produce what is called a Totox Value. Refiners buy their oil on Totox Value and check every single batch to ensure nothing is rancid. They then refine the oil which further reduces rancidity. The oil is then stabilised with Vitamin E (tocopherol) which acts as an anti-oxidant prior to filling into gelatine capsules which keep out all oxygen, providing a safe shelf-life measured in years. 

In support of this statement the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued an opinion** that the quality of raw materials used in the production of fish oil products for human consumption has nothing to do with the final quality. EFSA specifically says that the best measures of food safety for oils are the PV and AV tests on the refined oil, because refining removes all food safety risks.  

It follows from the above that the extensive screening and refining of the oils and the frequent testing for oxidation throughout the supply chain prior to final release of finished material would detect and remove any harmful oxidation products. 

As with the broadcast last week, the program makers are seeking to scare consumers away from fish oil capsules which have proven health benefits yet providing no evidence that capsules are in any way harmful. 

* The Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research 

** Scientific Opinion on Fish Oil for Human Consumption. Food Hygiene, including Rancidity. EFSA Journal 2010;8(10):1874.

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