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  Food Contaminants - Introductionslide

Contaminants are substances that have not been intentionally added to food. These substances may be present in food as a result of the various stages of its production, packaging, transport or holding. They also might result from environmental contamination. Since contamination generally has a negative impact on the quality of food and may imply a risk to human health, the EU has taken measures to minimise contaminants in foodstuffs.

European Union measures (establishment of maximum levels) have been taken for the following contaminants: mycotoxins (aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, fusarium-toxins, patulin, citrinin), metals (cadmium, lead, mercury ,inorganic tin), dioxins and PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), 3-MCPD, melamine, erucic acid and nitrates).

The European Commission has published a factsheet on food contaminants " Managing food contaminants: how the EU ensures that our food is safe" DE FR.

Chemicals for which investigations are ongoing:

  • Perchlorate The perchlorate ion (ClO4 -) is very stable in water, and its salts are highly soluble in water. Perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment, in deposits of nitrate and potash, and can be formed in the atmosphere and precipitate into soil and groundwater. It also occurs as an environmental contaminant arising from the use of nitrate fertilizers and from the manufacture, use and disposal of ammonium perchlorate used in rocket propellants, explosives, fireworks, flares and air-bag inflators and in other industrial processes. Perchlorate can also be formed during the degradation of sodium hypochlorite used to disinfect water and can contaminate the water supply. Water, soil and fertilizers are considered to be potential sources of perchlorate contamination in food.

    Following initial findings of perchlorate in fruits and vegetables produced in European Union, a more extensive monitoring indicated that the presence of perchlorate in fruits and vegetables is more widespread than initially expected. From the investigations, evidence was provided that the use of certain fertilizers containing high levels of perchlorate is an important contributor to the presence of perchlorate in fruits and vegetables. However, other sources may also contribute to the presence. Further investigations are needed to have a better view of the different sources of contamination of food, in particular fruits and vegetables, with perchlorate. The non-harmonised enforcement approach as regards the presence of perchlorate in food, in particular fruits and vegetables have caused some tension in the market. It was therefore appropriate in 2013, to agree on a common provisional enforcement approach for the intra-Union trade for the period awaiting the availability of the EFSA opinion. This common provisional enforcement approach was agreed at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on 16 July 2013. It is to be noted that the agreed levels are applicable on the edible part of the food concerned.

    On 30 September 2014 EFSA adopted a scientific opinion on perchlorate: Scientific Opinion on the risks to public health related to the presence of perchlorate in food, in particular fruits and vegetables

    Based on the outcome of the EFSA opinion, the values as reference for intra-Union trade have been reconsidered, taking into account recent occurrence data and applying the principle that these levels should be set as low as reasonably achievable applying good practices. These levels were endorsed by a very large majority of the delegations in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed on 10 March 2015 and were updated at the meeting of the Standing Committee on 23 June 2015. These levels apply from 16 March 2015 (except the levels for herbal and fruit infusions which apply from 1 July 2015) and the levels agreed at the Committee on 16 July 2013 are no longer valid.

    On 29 April 2015, the Commission Recommendation 2015/682 (EU), on the monitoring of perchlorate in food (including drinking water) in 2015 (and 2016) was adopted.

    During the course of 2016, the setting of maximum levels for perchlorate in food/certain foods will be considered, based upon the outcome of the scientific opinion and monitoring data generated in execution of the Commission Recommendation (and other recent monitoring data, i.e. data generated after 1 September 2013).

  • Acrylamide

  • Organotins - chemicals which can be found in water systems due to their presence in paints as anti-biofouling agents e.g. used on the hulls of ships and marine apparatus. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued an opinion on the health risks to consumers associated with exposure to organotins in foodstuffs (EFSA opinion). A data collection report on organotins is available (SCOOP report pdf). The Commission's Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) has adopted an opinion on the risks to health and the environment associated with the use of 4 organotin compounds (SCHER opinion pdf). In this opinion food and non-food exposure routes were assessed.

  • Furan – has been identified in a number of foodstuffs that undergo heat treatment such as canned and jarred foodstuffs. A report on provisional findings on furan in food has been compiled by EFSA. EFSA funded further research on furan. Two reports of EFSA funded projects on furan are available:

    On March 2007 the Commission adopted a Recommendation on the monitoring of the presence of furan in foodstuffs. Furan data following this monitoring recommendation are currently being collected by EFSA. EFSA has published reports with the monitoring results, the most updated monitoring report dating from 2011 compiling the monitoring results collected between 2004 and 2010. (2011 report)

  • Ethyl carbamate – a compound that can naturally occur in fermented foods and beverages. It often occurs in alcoholic beverages (in particular stone fruit brandies). Ethyl carbamate is formed by ethanol and certain precursors in the fruit mash under the influence of light during the distillation process. On 2 March 2010 the Commission adopted a Commission Recommendation pdf on the prevention and reduction of ethylcarbamate contamination in stone fruit spirits and stone fruit marc spirits and on the monitoing of ethyl carbamate levels in these beverages. Monitoring data following this recommendation are compiled in an EFSA scientific report which was made available in March 2014 (2014 report).

  • PFAS – a vast group of fluorinated compounds that have been widely used in industrial and consumer applications including stain- and water-resistant coatings for fabrics and carpets, oil-resistant coatings for paper products approved for food contact, floor polishes, insecticide formulations, fire-fighting foams, and mining and oil well surfactants. A number of different perfluorinated organic compounds have been widely found in the environment. An important subset is the (per)fluorinated organic surfactants, to which perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) belong. On 17 March 2010 the Commission adopted Commission Recommendation 2010/161/EC pdf on the monitoring of perfluoroalkylated substances in food. Monitoring data following this recommendation are currently being collected by EFSA.

  • Plant toxins and certain mycotoxins – Following the conclusions of EFSA opinions, the Standing Committee agreed on recommendations for monitoring of the following plant toxins and mycotoxins (in addition to published Commission Recommendations): tropane alkaloids, sterigmatocystin, ergot alkaloids, phomopsins, citrinin, pyrrolizidine alkaloids, Alternaria toxins. These agreed monitoring recommendations are compiled in the following document.



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