EFSA assesses arsenic in food

EFSA’s panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM Panel) has published an opinion on possible health risks related to the presence of arsenic as a contaminant in food.

The Panel compared amounts of arsenic that people could consume through food and drink to levels which may cause certain health problems. As there was little or no difference between the two, the Panel could not rule out the possibility of a health risk for some people. As a result, the Panel recommended that exposure to inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form, should be reduced.

However, the Panel also highlighted considerable uncertainties in relation to its risk assessment. It stressed the need for more data on levels of organic and inorganic arsenic in different foodstuffs, as well as on the relationship between arsenic intake levels and possible health effects.

Arsenic is a widely-occurring contaminant which occurs both naturally and as a result of human activity. It appears in many different forms, which can be either organic (i.e. containing carbon) or inorganic. Food is the main source of exposure to arsenic for the general population in Europe.

The EFSA opinion mainly focuses on inorganic arsenic, which is often of geological origin and can be found in groundwater. Long-term intake of inorganic arsenic has been associated with a range of health problems, including skin lesions, cardiovascular diseases and some forms of cancer.

The main contributors to overall dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic were considered by the Panel to be cereal grains and cereal-based products, food for special dietary uses (such as algae), bottled water, coffee and beer, rice and rice-based products, fish and vegetables.

EFSA was asked by the European Commission to assess the health risks related to the presence of arsenic as a contaminant in foodstuffs, as there are currently no harmonised maximum levels for arsenic in foodstuffs in Europe. EFSA’s scientific advice will help to inform any follow-up action to be taken by the Commission and/or EU Member States.

The CONTAM Panel is currently working on a series of opinions related to metals such as arsenic which are found as contaminants in food. Opinions on cadmium and uranium were published earlier this year and a further opinion, on lead, is due to be adopted in the coming months.

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