EFSA opinion on suitable indicators for both the occurrence and toxicity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in food

EFSA’s CONTAM Panel has adopted an opinion on suitable indicators for the occurrence and toxicity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in food. PAHs are chemical compounds that are primarily formed by incomplete combustion or heat-induced decomposition of organic matter. A number of them are genotoxic and can cause cancer. A major route of exposure is through consumption of food which can be contaminated with PAHs from environmental sources, industrial food processing and from certain home cooking practices. The Panel calculated exposure for mean and high dietary consumers of PAHs and based on general exposure levels, there is a low concern for consumer health. The Panel concluded that benzo[a]pyrene, the only PAH presently regulated in food, is not a suitable “indicator”[1] for the occurrence of PAHs in food and proposed a sum of either 4 or 8 PAH, as more suitable “indicators” in order to better protect consumer health.

In 2002, the former Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) identified 15 PAHs as being carcinogenic and suggested to use benzo[a]pyrene as an indicator of occurrence and effect of the carcinogenic PAHs in food. In 2005, these findings were confirmed by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) but, also proposed adding benzo[c]fluorene to the group of PAHs of concern in food[2].

The Panel was asked by the European Commission to determine if benzo[a]pyrene was still a suitable “indicator” for both occurrence and carcinogenic effects for the 16 other most relevant PAHs in food and, if not, to recommend other suitable indicators or concepts. The Panel was also asked to provide information on those foods which contribute most to consumer exposure to PAHs and which specific groups of the population are most exposed.

PAHs occur in several foods, such as cereals, vegetable oils, coffee, home-cooked foods, usually when smoking, heating and drying processes are involved, or in seafood from polluted waters. Home cooking, such as grilling, roasting and smoking, particularly charcoal grilled/barbecued foods, can lead to high concentrations of PAHs. For smokers, the contribution of smoking may also be significant.

The Panel evaluated data from the EFSA report on findings of the EFSA Data collection on PAHs in food. Based on data collected from the Member States, EFSA’s CONTAM Panel concluded that benzo[a]pyrene was present in about 50% of all samples analysed and another PAH, chrysene, was found in 60% of samples. The Panel noted that in about 30% of all samples which tested negative for benzo[a]pyrene other carcinogenic PAHs were detected.

The CONTAM Panel evaluated how effective different PAHs, in addition to benzo[a]pyrene, would be in acting as “indicators” for the carcinogenic PAHs. According to the Panel, a sum of either 4 or 8 PAH would be better indicators of both the occurrence and toxicity of the genotoxic and carcinogenic PAHs than benzo[a]pyrene or PAH 2 alone. However, although PAH 8 can cover 80% of the amount of the 15 priority PAHs, monitoring of the amounts of PAH 8 would not provide much added value compared to PAH 4. Normally, when PAH 4 are detected, PAH 8 are nearly always present. In addition, the four additional PAH in PAH 8 (compared to PAH 4) are not so relevant, as they are not so commonly found in food.

The Panel noted that for home cooking practices, such as barbecuing, PAH exposure in food could be reduced by preventing fat from dropping into the flames. The Panel recommended that additional occurrence and carcinogenicity data be collected for benzo[c]fluorene which was found in some food samples but could not be included in the exposure assessment because too few results were available. Furthermore, the Panel recommended that toxicological data of individual PAHs be collected.

[1] A PAH “indicator” is basically one or more chemical compounds (PAHs) which are tested for in food and then used to estimate the exposure to carcinogenic PAHs.
[2] There are several hundred PAHs of which 16 compounds were identified by SCF and JECFA as priority PAHs: benz[a]anthracene, benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[j]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[ghi]perylene, benzo[a]pyrene, chrysene, cyclopenta[cd]pyrene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, dibenzo[a,e]pyrene, dibenzo[a,h]pyrene, dibenzo[a,i]pyrene, dibenzo[a,l]pyrene, indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene, 5-methylchrysene and benzo[c]fluorene.

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