Commission puts on hold plans to relax mercury levels in fish

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

The European Commission has put on hold plans to increase maximum authorised mercury levels in fish, a move welcomed by consumer rights campaigners.

Currently, maximum authorised levels are set at one milligram per kilogram of fish and the Commission had planned on doubling this to two milligrams.

However, in a report published this month ​summarising a meeting held in September, the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (SCOPAFF) wrote: “After internal discussion within the Commission, it has been decided to discontinue for the time being the review of the maximum levels (MLs) for mercury in fish.”

Fish meat is the main contributor to methylmercury dietary exposure for all ages in Europe, followed by processed fish products.

Mercury content in fish varies widely depending on the species but is in general higher in predatory fish, such as tuna and swordfish, and can be toxic to the kidney, liver, nervous system, immune system and reproductive systems.

‘Food business operators should be involved’

In the summary, the Commission stressed the importance of consumption advice related to mercury in fish.

It said it encouraged member states to develop specific national consumption advice related to fish consumption so that consumers can enjoy the health benefits of eating fish whilst limiting the risks of mercury toxicity.

“When developing this consumption advice, member states shall especially include the frequency of fish consumption and the fish species consumed​,” it said.

Governments should communicate the specific national consumption advice to the consumers as well as to relevant health care workers who work with the consumer groups most at risk, it added.

“Member state[s] welcomed that the maximum levels for mercury in shark and swordfish will remain at the existing level and indicated that also food business operators should be involved in the information activities on consumption advice.”

One member state asked if the Commission planned to ask the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to update the exposure assessment.

At this stage, this is not planned​,” the summary notes. “However if member states have new occurrence data available, they can always submit them to EFSA. Possible data on the effectiveness of consumption advice can be sent to the Commission."

A welcome move

According to food industry watchdog association Foodwatch, the Commission’s reason for wanting to raise the maximum levels was purely economic.

The current mercury limit for larger predatory fish of one milligram per kilogram of fish means that half of the fish cannot be sold because they are too heavily [​contaminated]. The idea is you simply double this limit to two milligrams per kilogram of fish and most fish ​[can be] legally sold,” ​it said in an online petition calling on the EU to not lower safe levels, which attracted almost 80,000 signatures in Germany and the Netherlands.

International campaigns director at Foodwatch, Matthias Wolfschmidt, welcomed the news to keep levels as they are but added: "The Commission's attempt to increase the MRLs for certain fish is a sad demonstration of the spirit that still seems to prevail in the Commission and the Council.

"Instead of taking on the most fundamental environmental challenges and addressing the root causes, technical adjustments are being made so that business can continue undisturbed," ​he told FoodNavigator.

The maximum mercury levels for some fish species are already significantly higher than for other foods - further relaxation of the limits would have been absolutely irresponsible, as pregnant women and young children in particular need to be protected much more consistently against this heavy metal​.

The non-profit organisation is calling on the EU to reduce exposure to mercury by tackling it at the source.

The main entry routes for mercury into the food chain are through pesticides containing heavy metals, which it wants to see banned “as quickly as possible​” and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which should be reduced.

Wolfschmidt added: "It is not a lack of scientific knowledge that has led to the problematic load of mercury in the sea – it is a lack of political will to address and tackle the issue."

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