Commission takes action over nicotine mushroom mystery

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, Treaty of lisbon

The European Commission is taking risk management measures over the occurrence of high nicotine levels in wild mushrooms following an urgent investigation by EFSA, and implementing on-going monitoring.

The Commission asked EFSA to investigate the possible impact of nicotine in wild mushrooms on 27 April, after food companies reported finding that 99 per cent of wild mushrooms tested from 2008 had levels exceeding the default MRL of 0.01mg/kg for substances for which a specific level has not been set.

EFSA scientists responded that the presence of nicotine in fresh wild mushrooms of up to 0.5mg/kg is not safe, and proposed a level of 0.036mg/kg. For dried mushrooms, this would equate to 1.17mg/kg.

Following an exchange of views at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health yesterday, the Commission has deemed it appropriate to take measures on a temporary basis, to ensuring a high level of consumer protection:

Fresh wild mushrooms with a level of nicotine higher than 0.04 mg/kg, and dried wild mushrooms other than ceps with a level of nicotine higher than 1.2 mg/kg, should not be placed on the market and be withdrawn from the market and safely disposed of, Nina Papadoulaki, spokesperson for health, told FoodNavigator.com.

For dried ceps, the upper level for withdrawal from the market and disposal is 2.3 mg/kg.

Monitoring

Member States should put in place a monitoring programme for the 2009 season with a view to have a clear understanding of the natural levels and unavoidable background presence of nicotine in different wild mushroom species that can be expected from various origins,”​Papadoulaki said.

EU member states are being encouraged to communicate “without any delay” ​to the Commission and EFSA the results of monitoring, with the aim of setting a firm MRL.

The high levels were detected mainly in Boletus edulis​ mushrooms, but also in truffles and chanterelles; the mushrooms of concern hail mainly from China. The reasons for the high levels are not known, but nicotine, an alkaloid that occurs in tobacco, can also be used in pesticides.

However EFSA had to grapple with a number of uncertainties and limitations in reaching its MRL, so it recommends this be considered as temporary.

The effects of nicotine are likely to be mild and short term, according to EFSA, possibly including a raised heart rate, dizziness and headaches.

A spokesperson for EFSA told FoodNavigator.com that the risk assessor decided to issue a statement on the matter following evaluation by its in-house scientists, rather than evaluation and voting by a panel. This procedure was required because of the short time frame – the Commission’s request came in on 27 April.

Pesticide phase out

Nicotine’s use as a pesticide is currently being phased out in Europe, and its used discontinued by June 2010 at the latest. However EFSA said “its use in third countries may continue and may lead to residues of nicotine in food”.

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