Inorganic arsenic, mainly of geological origin and found in groundwater, is more toxic than organic (carbon-containing) arsenic, and adverse effects to high levels reported include skin lesions, cancer, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular disease, abnormal glucose metabolism and diabetes.
The European Commission asked its independent risk assessor, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), to assess the health risks related to arsenic as a contaminant in foodstuffs, as there are currently no harmonised maximum levels. Non-dietary exposure to arsenic is reckoned to be of considerably less significance in the EU than dietary exposure.
EFSA sent out a call for data to member states and received 100,000 results relating to various commodities and compared amounts of arsenic that people could consume through food and drink to levels that may cause health problems.
In most cases inorganic arsenic levels were not split out from organic arsenic, the highest total arsenic levels are found in fish and seafood, algae-based products (especially hijiki) and cereals and grains (especially rice, bran and germ). Changes in levels may occur depending on food processing, temperature and time, and on levels in water used for food preparation.
For average consumers, inorganic arsenic levels estimated seen to be between 0.13 and 0.56µg/kg bodyweight. Children under 3, though, were seen to have higher exposure, of between 0.50 to 2.66µg/kg.
For people who consume a lot of rice or algae products, it could be even higher – up to 4µg/kg.
New guidance and info needed
The WHO/FAO’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has set a provisional tolerable weekly intake limit for inorganic arsenic of 15µg/kg. However EFSA’s panel believes this is no longer appropriate and should be revisited as new data has indicated adverse effects at lower doses than this.
The panel’s conclusions will be used by the European Commission and/or member states to help inform any follow-up action.
A spokesperson for EFSA told FoodNavigator.com that the panel did not go into detail about what food manufacturers or processors can do about inorganic arsenic levels, but company risk managers are likely to be interested in the opinion.
Nonetheless, EFSA did highlight “considerable uncertainties” in its risk assessment. Specifically, it said more data is needed on levels or inorganic and organic arsenic in different foodstuffs, and the relationship between intake and possible health effects.