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Binding Agents Used in Agglomerated Corks: Much Ado About Nothing?

by Cyril Penn
February 05, 2015
“Why would they want to raise this non-issue for cork when they sell a stopper that is 100% made with oil-derived products?” – Carlos De Jesus, Amorim Corp

Years ago, I worked as a reporter covering the energy industry, and for a couple years I did a stint as editor for a technical publication dedicated to energy efficiency in buildings. During that time, I was continually sent information from cellulose insulation manufacturers who wanted to convince the world that fiberglass insulation was a health hazard, a potential cause of lung cancer. Meanwhile, I was inundated with information from fiberglass manufacturers aiming to show the world that the fire-retardant chemicals used in cellulose insulation were a health hazard.

Both sides were relentless. Millions of dollars were spent on research on behalf of each side. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think the motivation was all altruistic: it was also about the money. I take these things with a grain of salt.

When a report published this week raised questions about potential health issues associated with binding agents used in agglomerated cork, I took notice, though I was skeptical. Questions have been asked about agglomerated corks before. I remember hearing about a synthetic closure maker in Australia being forced to issue a retraction after emailing producers about alleged health and safety issues associated with microsphere’s used in agglomerated corks.

The report that appeared in Wine Industry Insight said agglomerated cork makers were facing scrutiny from the FDA and EPA over health concerns about the plastic polymers used in agglomerated closures. The headline, asked, “Micro-Agglomerates: 350 Million Illegal Corks Per Year?” Headline writers like to exaggerate and simplify, it makes for snappy copy. 

From an FDA standpoint, there is no safety concern,” - FDA spokeswoman Marianna Naum

Groupo Tappi Sintetici Espansi (GTSE), a trade association of synthetic closure makers in Italy, approached the FDA with questions about the regulatory status of polyurethane binders used for agglomerated cork. A letter from an FDA consumer safety officer responding to those questions was later posted to the trade association’s website. The letter cites FDA rules, which basically say that if there’s no migration, there’s no issue, but that manufacturers are responsible for providing data showing there’s no migration.

“From an FDA standpoint, there is no safety concern,” FDA spokeswoman Marianna Naum said.

I contacted Carlos de Jesus, marketing director of Amorim, the world’s largest closure maker for his take, which, not surprisingly, was: “Perhaps not unexpectedly, plastic stopper manufacturers seem to be attempting to discredit cork stoppers. While today’s article is not focused on Neutrocork, a product we launched a decade and a half ago, we believe it is important to immediately assure the market that the safety of Amorim’s products has been reviewed by US and internationally-recognized experts in food safety. The results of this review were subsequently submitted to the FDA."

"After reviewing data and information submitted by Amorim, FDA recently advised the company that the FDA “identified no safety issues,“ with use of its binders in agglomerated corks. FDA also stated that ‘FDA is not contemplating any enforcement action against [Amorim’s] agglomerated corks, is not recommending that wines already sold or in the supply chain with the agglomerated cork closures, nor the agglomerated corks themselves, be recalled, and is not recommending a cessation of the marketing and purchasing of the agglomerated corks for use with wine and beverages at this time. ‘

“We’ve had these issues several times over the last few years,” François Margot, Sales Manager for Diam North America said. “The letter (from the FDA) is an answer to some questions. The FDA is just recalling the law. Somebody is asking questions about how the uses of polyurethane binders are regulated, and the FDA is simply answering this question, saying basically that if there’s no migration of any compounds from the product, then you don’t even have to ask for any market authorization. Of course we guarantee there’s no TDI migration from Diam."

Well over 90 percent of all synthetic wine closures in the U.S. are made by Nomacorc, which makes more than three-quarters of all synthetic wine closures globally, though in Italy, several competing synthetic closure makers remain and Nomacorc’s market share is closer to 50 percent.

Malcom Thompson, vice president of strategy and innovation, said Nomacorc joined GTSE when it formed a few years ago to address issues associated with regulations prohibiting synthetic closures in certain types of Italian wine. “I’m not representing the company on that group, and I’m not authorized to speak on their behalf," he said, adding, “Through the course of some work they were doing in the market, this information surfaced which brought the issue of compliance into question and at some point they decided it was important enough to pursue.”

“We’re held to the same standard. I think this is a legitimate issue,” Thompson said. Whether it’s a health issue or not comes down to the nature of migration and what may or may not be coming out of those products. … We take matters concerning FDA compliance with the highest level of importance. Suffice to say, we don’t have glue in our products.”

“We have documentation to prove that our product is safe,” Dustin Mowe, general manager of Portocork North America said. “There’s very strong commercial reasons for the timing of this (article/letter being made public).”

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