Low risk from average level dietary exposure to PAHs, says EFSA

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

The European regulator has found that there is a low risk to consumers from polycyclic aromatric hydrocarbons (PAHs) in foods based on average dietary exposure but says risk management action may be required for high dietary intake.

The European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) findings are of interest to food manufacturers as PAHs can enter food during food production processes, as well as from environmental sources and from home food preparation.

Increasingly pinpointed by consumer organisations as a food safety issue in the supply chain, PAHs are a group of about 100 different chemicals that are formed during incomplete combustion or heat-induced decomposition of organic matter such as charbroiled meat.

Humans can be exposed to PAHs through different routes. For non-smokers, the major route of exposure is from food with a minor contribution from inhaled air.

In cigarette smokers, the contribution from smoking and food may be of similar magnitude, according to EFSA.


A number of PAHs have been shown to be genotoxic carcinogens. In 2002, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) reviewed PAH toxicity. For 15 compounds it concluded that there was clear evidence for their toxicity.

In 2005, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) performed a risk assessment on PAHs, and basically agreed with the SCF selection, downgraded one substance from the SCF list, and nominated one further compound for observation in food.

PAH indicators

EFSA's Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, CONTAM, on foot of a request from the European Commission, also determined that Benzo[a]pyrene is not a ‘suitable’ indicator for the presence or carcinogenic effects of the 16 other most relevant PAHs in food.

The Panel evaluated data from the EFSA report on its data collection on PAHs in food, which was based on information collected from member states. CONTAM found that benzo[a]pyrene was present in about 50 per cent of all samples analysed and another PAH, chrysene, was found in 60 per cent of samples.

The Panel also detected other carcinogenic PAHs in about 30 per cent of all samples which had tested negative for benzo[a]pyrene.

Further data is required in relation to the PAH, benzo[c]fluorene, according to CONTAM, as though it was found in some of the samples it could not be included in the exposure assessment because too few results were available.

CONTAM, as a result of its findings, claims that a sum of either four or eight PAHs would be more effective indicators in order to better protect consumer health.

Commission Regulation (EC) No 466/2001 as amended by Regulation 208/2005 sets maximum levels for benzo[a]pyrene in certain foods.

Cereal and sea food

The Commission also requested that CONTAM evaluated which foods most contribute to consumer exposure to PAHs, with the Panel concluding that the highest contributors to the dietary exposure were cereals and cereal products, and sea food and sea food products.

Consumers may also be exposed to PAHs by eating grilled or charred meats, vegetables, fruits, as well as processed or pickled foods.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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