Aflatoxins in food: EFSA assesses new proposed maximum levels for almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios and advises the European Commission

EFSA has assessed, at the request of the European Commission (EC), the possibility of a potential increase in consumers’ health risks if higher levels of aflatoxins would be permitted for almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios. In its opinion EFSA’s Panel dealing with contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM Panel) concluded that increasing the maximum levels of aflatoxins in these three nuts would have only minor effects on the expected total dietary exposure from all sources and the risk of cancer. However, EFSA’s scientific experts pointed out that it is essential to keep aflatoxin exposure from food sources as low as reasonably achievable by reducing exposure from the sources that are major contributors to total dietary exposure to aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins occur naturally in foods such as nuts, figs and other dried fruits, spices and crude vegetable oils. They are produced by moulds that grow on plants before harvest or on the foods during storage. They are undesirable because they have been shown to cause cancer in animals and humans.

The EC asked for this opinion in the context of discussions at meetings of the Codex Alimentarius Commission of the FAO/WHO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization).  Whilst the EU maximum levels for processed almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios are currently 4 µg/kg total aflatoxins[1], the Codex Alimentarius Commission proposed in 2005 to set levels for total aflatoxins of 15 µg/kg for unprocessed almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios. At its 2006 meeting, levels of 8 µg/kg for these three ready-to-eat nuts were discussed, but no final decision has been taken.

These proposed maximum levels of aflatoxins for the three nuts, to be set at an international level, are aimed to facilitate worldwide trade. The EC represents the European Union at the Codex Alimentarius Commission meetings.  EFSA’s opinion provides risk managers with the scientific basis for responding to these proposals.

The Panel felt that keeping aflatoxin exposure from food sources as low as reasonably achievable was important to protect public health. The experts emphasised the importance of reducing the number of highly contaminated foods reaching the market, as well as reducing exposure from other foods, not just these nuts. The Panel concluded that increasing the maximum levels of aflatoxins for almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts would have only a minor effect on the estimated total dietary exposure of people from all sources and therefore on cancer risk. In its assessment the Panel also took into account high level consumers.

Estimated dietary exposures for children were within the range of estimates for the adult population. The main contributors to aflatoxin intakes in children were from foods other than nuts for which data specific to children’s diets were not available.

Codex Alimentarius Commission

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts such as codes of practice under the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The main purposes of this Programme are to protect the health of consumers, ensure fair trade practices and promote coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The next Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods will take place from 16 to 20 April 2007 in Beijing (China).