Arsenic in food

Arsenic is a widely found contaminant which occurs both naturally and as a result of human activity. Arsenic is a metalloid that occurs in different inorganic and organic – i.e. containing carbon – forms. These are found in the environment both from natural occurrence and from anthropogenic activity. The inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic as compared to the organic arsenic.

Food, particularly grain-based processed products such as wheat bread, rice, milk and dairy products, and drinking water are the main sources of exposure for the general population in Europe. Other food groups that are important contributors to the daily dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic in the general European population were food for special dietary uses, bottled water, coffee and beer, rice grains and rice based products, fish and vegetables (especially algae).

The main adverse effects reported to be associated with long term ingestion of inorganic arsenic in humans are: skin lesions, cancer, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular diseases, abnormal glucose metabolism, and diabetes. There is emerging evidence of negative impacts on foetal and infant development, particularly reduced birth weight.

Children under three years of age are the most exposed to inorganic arsenic. High consumers of rice in Europe, such as certain ethnic groups and high consumers of algae-based products can exceed their tolerable weekly intake for inorganic arsenic. The available evidence does not indicate a different dietary exposure for vegetarians from that of the general population, unless they consume a large amount of algae-based products.

Due to problems related to analysis of (inorganic) arsenic in a number of food commodities, maximum levels for arsenic have initially only been set for rice and derived products. Once reliable analytical methods became available, a monitoring campaign for arsenic covering the period 2016-2018 was organised. The aim of this monitoring campaign is to generate reliable occurrence data that can be used to correctly evaluate the need for setting additional maximum levels for other food commodities. The commodities covered in this monitoring campaign are cereal grains, cereal based products (including bran and germ), fruit and vegetable juices, drinking water (including bottled water), coffee, dry tea leaves, beer, fish and sea food, vegetables, algae products (including hijiki), milk, dairy products, food intended for infants and young children, food for special medical purposes and food supplements. Competent authorities are free to sample and analyse other food commodities they consider of concern.

Useful links:

Maximum levels for arsenic in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 2015/1006 (future section 3.5 of the Annex to Regulation (EC) No 2006/1881, applicable from 1 January 2016 onwards).

Arsenic Monitoring recommendation

Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for official control are laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007.

EFSA scientific opinions & Reports:

EFSA Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food

EFSA Scientific Report on Dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic in the European population



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