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BgVV: probiotic foods must be safe

04/2000, 24.02.2000

Final report of a BgVV working group lays down criteria for probiotic micro-organisms.

Press reports that dairy products like yoghurt containing "probiotic" micro-organisms could be harmful for some people recently led to a temporary uncertainty amongst consumers. First of all, it should be said that so far no single case of illness following consumption of a probiotic food has been notified. Nevertheless, a general declaration of safety for foods which claim to be "probiotic" cannot simply be issued. It is far more the case that specific requirements and test criteria must be met before they can be placed on the market.

To this end a working group within the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV) entitled "Probiotic Micro-organism Cultures in Foods" has been set up. It consists of experts from food control, scientific circles, industry, consumers and BgVV. It has drawn up criteria which must be examined in order to guarantee the safety and to determine the health-promoting effects claimed for probiotic foods.

In its final report the working group determined, amongst other things, that probiotic micro-organisms (mainly lactic acid bacteria) - like other germs - may only then be used in foods if it has been determined that they are safe. It is the task of the manufacturer to guarantee this for each bacterial strain it uses as a probiotic.

Whether micro-organisms are safe or unsafe depends on their individual genetic make-up. The decision "safe" or "not safe" must, therefore, always be viewed in conjunction with this strain-specific genetic make-up. Furthermore, consideration should also be given to the state of health of specific consumer groups (e.g. small children or people with a weakened immune system). It is, for instance, known that individual lactobacillus or enterococcus strains can cause health problems in humans with a weakened immune system. Up to now, no cases of foodborne disease caused by lactic acid bacteria have been proven. On the other hand, certain routes of infection are feasible which bypass the body's natural barriers (e.g. mucous membranes) and may involve the microflora normally present there . Germs of the Lactobacillus casei group and streptococci are sometimes found in oral flora in healthy human beings.

The lactic acid bacteria traditionally used in foods are safe according to the current level of scientific knowledge.

The BgVV working group has also called on specific physiological attributes of probiotic organisms to be examined with regard to their safety. This not only applies to the metabolites of organisms like biogenic amines. It must also be examined whether the probiotic micro-organisms activate specific substances in the body which are harmful (e.g. "procarcinogenic" i.e. substances which through interaction with other substances or organisms can trigger cancer) or whether they influence body functions for instance by activating the aggregation of thrombocytes in blood clotting (thrombocyte aggregation) thereby increasing the risk of blood clotting.

BgVV calls on manufacturers to examine micro-organisms which are to be used as probiotics in foods according to the criteria drawn up by the working group and to comply with the recommended detection criteria for the health effects of probiotic micro-organisms.

The final report of the working group is available on the Internetsite see below and can be read using Acrobat Reader 3.0.


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