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.
Community measures have been taken for the following contaminants: mycotoxins (aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, fusarium-toxins, patulin), metals (cadmium, lead, mercury ,inorganic tin), dioxins and PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), 3-MCPD and nitrates).
The European Commission has published a factsheet on food contaminants "Managing food contaminants: how the EU ensures that our food is safe" .
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 intial findings of perchlorate in fruits and vegtables 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 preliminary investigations it appears 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, also other sources may 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 and their relative. 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 to agree on a common provisional enforcement approach for the intra-Union trade for the period awaiting the availability of the EFSA opinion was agreed. 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.
- 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 ). 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 ). 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:
- Scientific Report on Furan in heat processed food products inclusing home coked food products and ready-to-eat products
- Scientific Report on Consumer Exposure to furan from heat processed food and kitchen air
- 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 prescursors in the fruit mash under the influence of light during the distillation process. On 2 March 2010 the Commission adopted a Commission Recommendation 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 currently being collected by EFSA.
- 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 on the monitoring of perfluoroalkylated substances in food. Monitoring data following this recommendation are currently being collected by EFSA.