Sorbitol death is wake-up call for Internet retailers

In Barletta, a town with 91,000 inhabitants in South-East Italy, a woman has died, and two have been hospitalized after ingesting a vial which seems to have contained sorbitol. According to Carlo Locatelli, of the Poisons Center in Pavia, Italy, which is one of Italy’s leading Poisons Centers, the patients developed methemoglobinemia, a condition in which oxygen cannot be captured by red blood cells. Fortunately, the two surviving patients were saved by prompt administration of methylene blue, a colour dye, which also reverses methemoglobinemia .

Sorbitol is a polyol which naturally occurs in fruit, and is widely used in candies and other low-calorie products. From the outset, the symptomatology suggested that nitrates could be responsible for the tragic deaths. According to Italy’s Ministry of Health, there is no information suggesting product contamination. Nevertheless, the Italian police squad assigned to food safety matters, the NAS, have seized over 1,000 tons of food-grade sorbitol at Cargill’s plants in Northern Italy but have apparently ordered no product testing. The implicated sorbitol was manufactured at Cargill’s plant in Rovigo, in Northern Italy. The most recent media reports indicate that the product was 70% sodium nitrite, and it is unclear how it could have been mistaken for sorbitol. News that implicated an industry-grade sorbitol lot (sorbitol is also used for manufacturing plastics, etc) are not confirmed.

It is early to say what the root cause of the problem was, or what failed in the system that should protect patients, and to separate the root cause from the inevitable legal blame-game that follows tragedies.

The doctors administering the sorbitol-based test seem to have purchased the product from eBay, which has expressed sorrow and halted globally the sales of sorbitol. It is unclear if a recall should follow, or if it will. There’s no basis at this time to suggest that food companies should recall sorbitol-containing products; however, they can trace their sorbitol to exclude the affected lot is involved. Moreover, they should follow closely the events.

Cargill has issued a press release in Italian (well done, and the loss of website formatting means their crisis team had to act quickly), explaining that the lot was manufactured at their site in February 2010, and since packaged elsewhere. The product conformed to tests when it left the production site.

As we wait for further news, it is still unclear how the product was sold over ebay.

For the moment, this tragedy seems to show that Internet retailers, when selling foods or food ingredients, are food business operators, and should ensure the safety of their products – much like grocery retailers do – and issuing recalls when necessary.  eBay seems to be behaving like a responsible food business. Others, like Amazon, should start doing the same even if they think they’re not food businesses.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

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