Chlorate: A Contaminant of Growing Concern

Food safety regulations affect all stages of the food supply chain, from farm to fork. Every year, millions of people become ill due to ingestion of food-borne pathogens. In severe circumstances, such illness can lead to death, with 3,000 dying, per year, on average, in America alone. Taking this into account it is clear that food safety regulations are paramount for public health. For all in the food industry, managing food safety risks and adhering to food safety regulations should be regarded as more than economic and legal imperatives.

The cleaning processes used in the food industry, especially for milk processing, are vital in the production of microbiologically safe products for human consumption. The question remains however if cleaning regimens not carried out correctly, is there potential for the introduction new contaminants?

Milk, as we know, is a nutrient-dense food product that plays an important role in human nutrition, but is also an ideal media for bacterial growth, in some circumstances leading to foodborne illness. To eradicate these bacteria food scientists use similar techniques that you would in the cleaning of your house, through the use of heat processing on milk and use of sanitizers, like chlorine-based products on equipment and surfaces.

The use of chlorine disinfectants increases the ability of food industry to ensure a clean environment for all the different processes that take place in the production of milk for consumption such as decreasing the risk of cross-contamination, increasing product shelf life and lowering consumer risk. While these steps may seem incredible, researchers in Stuttgart have found that these sanitizers, if used incorrectly, can introduce new contaminants of a chemical nature, which can have adverse effects on those who consume them, especially infants.

Chlorine disinfectants commonly used in food and water processing can decompose over time (due to improper storage, high solution concentration, exposure to sunlight, etc.). This causes chemical changes to the structures of the disinfectants, much like breaking up and rebuilding Lego blocks to get something different from the same components. My research focuses on one of these new structures, chlorate, which is made up of chlorine and oxygen.

If consumed at high enough levels in the diet, chlorate has been associated with a reduction of thyroid activity, in at-risk groups which include infants can have detrimental effects in neural and physical development; and has been associated with higher occurrence of hypothyroidism in the population who live in areas with higher contamination levels.

Chlorate can also affect our blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body by interacting with the iron in your blood. The human body has a natural defence mechanism against this but infants under six months have not developed this mechanism; meaning they have no way to stop this mutation of their blood. This process can lead to an illness referred to as blue baby syndrome, where the baby takes on a bluish hue due to poorly oxygenated blood, which in severe cases can lead to death.

Stringent regulations have now been established for chlorate to protect the consumer and especially those most at risk, infants. These are strictly adhered to especially in the components used in infant milk formula production. Regulations have highlighted the importance of proper use and storage of these sanitizers to reduce the formation of chlorate and strict testing of milk being carried by all members of the dairy industry.

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