Dioxins and PCBs

Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are toxic chemicals that persist in the environment and accumulate in the food chain. Their presence in the environment in Europe has declined since the 1970s, following concerted efforts by public authorities and industry.

In the context of EFSA’s work, ‘dioxins’ refers to two groups of compounds: Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and dibenzofurans (PCDFs). Dioxins have no technological or other use, but are generated in a number of thermal and industrial processes as unwanted and often unavoidable by-products. In contrast to dioxins, PCBs had widespread use in numerous industrial applications, and were produced in large quantities for several decades with an estimated total world production of 1.2-1.5 million tonnes, until they were banned in most countries by the 1980s.

Dioxins and PCBs are found at low levels in many foods. Longer-term exposure to these substances has been shown to cause a range of adverse effects on the nervous, immune and endocrine systems, and impair reproductive function. They may also cause cancer. Their persistence and the fact that they accumulate in the food chain, notably in animal fat, therefore continues to cause some safety concerns.

Dioxins and some PCBs referred to as dioxin-like PCBs (due to their similar toxicological properties) are often considered together within the context of public health. Other PCBs referred to as ‘non dioxin-like PCBs’ have a different mechanism of toxicity but can also cause adverse effects on health.

EFSA collects and analyses occurrence data on dioxins and PCBs in food and feed. EFSA staff ensures the continuity of data collection on dioxins and PCBs, integrating newly generated occurrence and exposure data into existing databases. It produces bi-annual monitoring reports on the levels of dioxins and PCBs in food and feed.

EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) provides risk managers with scientific advice to inform their decision-making on the setting of maximum levels of dioxins and PCBs in food and feed. With regard to dioxins and PCBs in feed, the CONTAM Panel also considers the level of carry over from feed to foods of animal origin and identifies feed materials which could be considered as sources of exposure.

EFSA provides scientific advice and risk assessments on dioxins and PCBs for EU risk managers to help them assess the need for regulatory measures as regards the safety of contaminated food and feed. In particular, EFSA is required to:

  • Assess human and animal exposure using occurrence data, in particular, from monitoring activities in EU Member States
  • Consider the exposure for specific population groups, e.g. vulnerable groups such as infants and children and/or people following specific diets
  • Consider the exposure of farm and domestic animals
  • Make recommendations for the collection of further data on dioxins and PCBs that enable the refinement of risk assessments.

Monitoring of dioxins and PCBs in food and feed

EU-wide data on the presence of dioxins and PCBs in the food chain are collected and analysed in bi-annual reports. The monitoring data are used with other information, including food consumption data, to evaluate the progress made in EU Member States in reducing the  dietary exposure of the population to these contaminants and are used by risk managers, as required, to revise maximum levels found in food and feed.

In 2001, the European Union adopted a strategy on dioxins and PCBs aimed at reducing contamination levels of these substances in the environment, in feed and in foodstuffs in order to ensure a high level of public health protection.

In 2001, the European Commission set for the first time maximum levels for dioxins, which were extended to dioxin-like PCBs in 2006. Regulation EU 1259/2011 and Regulation EU 277/2012 recently updated them and set maximum levels for non dioxin-like PCBs in food and feed respectively. These regulations took account of recent data on the presence of dioxins and PCBs in food and feed published in two EFSA scientific monitoring reports in 2010, as well as an EFSA scientific opinion on the presence of non dioxin-like PCBs in feed and food.

Member States are responsible for the monitoring of the levels of dioxins and PCBs in food. In 2010, EFSA received the mandate from the European Commission to collect and analyse, on a continuous basis, all available data on dioxins and PCBs in food and feed. The mandate includes the publication of a report every two years analysing these data.