Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of about ten thousand compounds, a few of them occurring in considerable amounts in the environment and food. PAHs consist of fused aromatic rings and do not contain heteroatoms or carry substituents. Some of the PAHs have been demonstrated to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. Those PAHs that have not been found carcinogenic may however act as synergists. Human beings are exposed to PAHs via air and drinking water, but mostly by intake of food. Food contamination with PAHs largely arises from production practices, although environmental contamination is also an issue, since they are formed during incomplete combustion processes. Grains and raw products for the production of edible oil (e.g. olives) may be contaminated with PAHs through artificial drying whereas food from animal origin is mainly contaminated through processing, e.g. charcoal grilling, roasting, and smoking.
New European legislation was introduced in 2011 to respond to food contamination problems, based on data collected by the European Member States and assessment by the European Food Safety Authority in 2008 (scientific opinion). Regulation (EC) No 776/2006 designates the JRC Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements as the European Union Reference Laboratory (EU-RL) for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). With coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon the term Community Reference Laboratory has changed into European Union Reference Laboratory (EU-RL). The primary tasks of the EU-RL are: to assist laboratories across the EU Member States with the development and validation of analytical methods, to organise comparative tests, to help harmonise official controls, and to help co-ordinate and develop further the analysis of all PAHs. These activities refer in particular to Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 as amended by Commission Regulation 835/2011 setting maximum levels of benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) and the sum of benzo(a)pyrene, Benz(a)anthracene, Benzo(b)fluoranthene and chrysene in various types of food, to Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007 as amended by Commissin Regulation 836/2011 laying down sampling and analysis measures for the official control of the levels of BaP in foodstuffs. To achieve these goals, the EU-RL works in close collaboration with national reference laboratories (NRLs).