Chemical substances play an important role in food production and distribution. As food additives, they prolong for example the shelf life of foods, and, as colours and flavourings, they may make foods more attractive. Other chemicals are pharmacologically active and therefore used to fight diseases in farm animals and on crops.
To keep food hygienic and attractive it needs to be kept in containers that are made of chemical substances such as plastics. These clear benefits of the use of chemicals in food production and distribution have, on the other hand, to be balanced with potential risks for the health of the food consumer due to side effects and residues of these chemicals.
Moreover, a number of chemical substances are present in the environment as pollutants. These contaminants are unintentionally present in raw materials used in food production and distribution and can often not be avoided. Community food legislation aims at the establishment of the right balance between risks and benefits of substances that are used intentionally and at the reduction of contaminants in accordance with the high level of consumer protection that is required in Article 152 of the Treaty establishing the European Community.
To achieve this high level of health protection for the consumer, a risk analysis procedure that is based on sound scientific evaluation and takes into account other factors, such as the feasibility of control, underpins Community legislation. For chemical substances in food, legislation is divided into the following areas:
- The legislation on food additives is based on the principle that only additives that are explicitly authorised may be used, often in limited quantities in specific foodstuffs. Prior to their authorisation by the Commission, food additives are evaluated for their safety.
- The existing legislation on flavourings sets limits on the presence of undesirable compounds, while for the chemically defined flavouring substances a vast safety evaluation programme is ongoing. Only substances for which the outcome of the evaluation is favourable will be authorised for use in foodstuffs by means of a future positive list.
- The legislation on contaminants is based on scientific advice and the principle that contaminant levels shall be kept as low as can be reasonably achieved following good working practices. Maximum levels have been set for certain contaminants (e.g. mycotoxins, dioxins, heavy metals, nitrates, chloropropanols) in order to protect public health.
- The legislation on residues of veterinary medicinal products used in food producing animals and on residues of plant protection products (pesticides) provides for a scientific evaluation before respective products are authorised. If necessary, maximum residue limits (MRLs) are established and in some cases the use of substances is prohibited.
- The legislation on food contact materials provides that these materials shall not transfer their components into food in quantities that could endanger human health or change the composition, the taste or the texture of food.