The review, entitled Chemicals in Food, was commissioned by the EC and synthesises the findings of the most recent EFSA scientific opinions for four different categories: Pesticide residues in food; arsenic in food and drink; veterinary drug residues in animals and food and ethyl carbamate in alcoholic spirits.
It is intended to “highlight EFSA’s role and link its findings to the way chemicals in food are sometimes portrayed by media”.
Chemical levels - the real and the ideal
Arsenic: Maximum EU levels for arsenic in drinking water is 10μg per litre, with maximum levels for food set to come in force in 2016. Brown rice was found to have almost twice as much arsenic as white rice - 151.9 μg per kilo compared with 88.7. Drinking water had an average of 2.1 μg /l.
Pesticides - In 2013, the reporting countries analysed 80,967 samples for 685 pesticides. 1.5% of samples clearly exceeded the legal limits but this rose to 5.7% for non-EU countries. Strawberries were among the biggest offenders. Herbal infusions and tea leaves often exceeded limits for processed foods.
Drug residues – While sample sizes for animals varied greatly, 0.2% of cows tested were non-compliant for drugs including steroids and antibiotics, compared with 0.21% of pigs who were over the limit mainly for copper. 0.38% of sheep and goats exceeded antibacterial and heavy metal limits.
Ethyl carbamate: While there is no maximum level for ethyl carbamate, the EC set a target level of 1000 µg/L in its Code of Practice for producers. Spirits from stone fruits contain an average of 698 µg/L compared with 55 µg/L for non-fruit spirits or 3 µg/L for food.
For all age groups, the main source of dietary inorganic arsenic - more dangerous than organic - was grain-based processed products, such as wheat bread and rolls. Other important sources included rice, water and milk. Although levels of rice consumption are generally quite low in the EU, high levels of arsenic in this food increase exposure.
The report recommended rinsing rice before cooking to wash off some of the arsenic.
“In areas with high arsenic concentrations in soil and ground water, boiling rice in abundant water is preferred to steaming (during which the rice may absorb more arsenic from the water) as this can reduce the arsenic concentrations.
“Of course, rinsing and boiling can affect the texture of the final cooked food, which is a particular concern for slow-cooked traditional dishes like Spanish paella and Italian risotto.”
The report also noted that arsenic levels found in fish and seafood tended to be less harmful organic arsenic, although it noted that most national media coverage had not reflected this difference.
The report said data for veterinary drug residues - both prohibited and authorised - was collected by member states annually, entered into an EC-managed database and then analysed by EFSA.
“The horsemeat episode in 2013 increased media attention on the safety of meat and one issue that emerged was the use of veterinary drugs in food-producing animals."
Since 2007 there has been a ‘general downward trend’ for foods found to be over the legal limits: "The data seem to indicate that the situation is largely under control.“
However the report noted several limitations of the figures, including different methods used to collect data meaning that in-depth analysis was not possible – but said that last year the EC began a gradual handover of data collection to EFSA, as is currently the case for pesticides in food, meaning that more detailed analysis would be possible.
The report said member states were obliged to carry out annual controls to ensure that food placed on the market did not exceed maximum limits of pesticide residue. In 2013, the reporting countries (all of the EU plus Iceland and Norway) analysed 80,967 samples for 685 pesticides, finding that 97.4% were within legal limits.
EFSA also collected data from member states for a basket of raw goods. In 2013 it found there was a low short-term risk, while long-term exposure was deemed unlikely to cause chronic health problems.
Ethyl carbamate in spirit drinks
Ethyl carbamate, or urethane, occurs when chemicals present in foods naturally break down during storage. It occurs in spirit alcohols, especially in brandies made from stone fruits such as apricots or plums, but may also be present in fermented foods such as bread or soy sauce. It is genotoxic - meaning it damages DNA - causing cancer in animals and has been linked to cancer in humans.
In 2007 an EFSA scientific committee ruled that ethyl carbamate was “a health concern, particularly with respect to stone fruit brandies”.
The report noted that there has been very little media coverage of ethyl carbamate since the 1980s, perhaps reflecting the fact that it was a risk mainly for high consumers of certain types of strong alcoholic spirits.