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Editors: Paul Trouth and Päivi Jokiniemi
Article related to: People and perspectives
Guest column: Chemicals in the food chain – what do you need to know?
Chemicals are the building blocks for all life. All living organisms – including people, animals and plants – are made of them.
The chemicals that make up our bodies come almost exclusively from food. The chemicals in our food are largely harmless and are even essential and desirable – for example, nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibre are composed of chemical compounds. These chemicals contribute both to a rounded diet and to our eating experience by affecting how our food tastes, smells and feels.
How do man-made chemicals get into our food?
In addition to the natural chemicals in food, additives play an important role in food production and preservation. They are added to food for specific purposes. For example, some can prolong the shelf life of foods, making them safer to eat for longer, while food colours can make food more appealing.
Barbara Gallani. Image: Chris Dixon.
However, chemical substances can also end up in food unintentionally. For example, the bottles your drinks come in and the plates your food is served on contain chemical substances, which can migrate into the food.
The packaging used to keep food fresh and easy to handle needs to be resistant to fat and water and have non-stick properties – this has often been achieved by using plastics and resins containing chemicals such as bisphenol A*. So, it is important that we study the ongoing research on the effects of chemicals like these on human health.
Residues of chemicals used to fight diseases in farm animals or crops – like pesticides and weedkillers – can also end up in our food.
They can also enter food as a result of decontamination treatments such as chlorine-washed chicken (which is currently not allowed in the EU), or because of heating during food production. A well-known example of the latter is acrylamide, a substance produced naturally when starchy food is cooked at high temperatures. This process helps to enhance the flavour of these foods but the acrylamide can potentially increase the risk of developing cancer for consumers.
The food chain can be contaminated by both naturally occurring and man-made chemical compounds that are present at various levels in the environment, for example, in soil, water and the atmosphere.
These could be industrial pollutants such as dioxins, and toxins produced by plants or fungi or marine crustaceans. A variety of metals can be found naturally in the environment or as a result of human activity.
These can then enter the food chain and be potentially harmful for human or animal health. For example, mercury is often found in the fat of fish and therefore some population groups, such as children, pregnant women and women of child bearing age, are recommended to limit their intake of these fish.
How are you protected?
There are lots of things you can do to ensure that you have a healthy diet, in particular by varying what you eat regularly. But when it comes to avoiding harmful chemicals in our food, we rely on scientists to analyse research and politicians to take decisions to protect us. The good news is that the system of food safety in the EU is one of the strongest in the world.
To protect consumers, the levels of chemicals in food need to be monitored, measured and assessed for safety. This is where the work we do at the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, plays a key role. One of our tasks is to analyse and then produce reports, such as the annual report on pesticide residues.
For each individual chemical, scientists then review the data on its toxicity to set a safe level for human health, animals and/or the environment. We compare this with the levels of the chemical that we are likely to be exposed to – for example through food – to predict potential risks.
The European Commission and the Member States of the EU then use this scientific advice on chemicals in food to regulate them. For example, they decide if a substance should be authorised for use in food, how much of it can be safely added in different food types and what kind of labelling is required. These measures contribute to protecting the health of consumers from possible harmful effects.
Sometimes food products are withdrawn from the market or their use is limited. This can happen, for instance, if certain plant or marine toxins are found to be present in unacceptably high amounts.
More complex mixtures require more challenging assessments
But in today’s world, we are not simply exposed to individual chemicals. Humans, animals and the environment are constantly exposed to multiple chemicals from a variety of sources – and that makes evaluating their toxicity more complex. Some chemicals become more toxic when combined with others, but others become less so. Therefore, not only do we have to look at increases or decreases in the toxicity of the chemicals, but we also have to assess the body’s ability to detoxify and eliminate them.
To meet these challenges, EFSA’s scientists are developing new frameworks and tools – what we call Mix-Tox – for assessing the risks posed by chemical mixtures and their cocktail effects on humans and the environment. It is not an easy task to understand how combined chemicals behave since the number of combinations is almost infinite.
Initiatives such as Mix-Tox will help to ensure that EFSA’s advice to decision-makers keeps pace with scientific knowledge and will continue to allow European consumers, animals and the environment to enjoy one of the highest levels of food safety in the world.
Barbara Gallani is the Head of Communications & External Relations at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
EFSA is a European Union agency based in Parma, Italy. It was set up in 2002 to be a source of scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain.
* 18 September 2017: this has often been achieved by using fluorinated chemicals such as bisphenol A replaced by this has often been achieved by using plastics and resins containing chemicals such as bisphenol A.