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Chemicals in food

Chemicals are essential building blocks for everything in the world. All living matter, including people, animals and plants, consists of chemicals. All food is made up of chemical substances. Chemicals in food are largely harmless and often desirable – for example, nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fat and fibre are composed of chemical compounds. Many of these occur naturally and contribute both to a rounded diet and to our eating experience.

Chemicals can, however, have a variety of toxicological properties, some of which might cause effects in humans and animals. Usually, these are not harmful unless we are exposed to them for a long time and at high levels. Scientists help to safeguard against these harmful effects by establishing safe levels. This scientific advice informs decision-makers who regulate the use of chemicals in food or seek to limit their presence in the food chain.

Overview

Chemical substances can play an important role in food production and preservation. Food additives can, for example, prolong the shelf life of foods; others, such as colours, can make food more attractive. Flavourings are used to make food tastier. Food supplements are used as sources of nutrition.

Food packaging materials and containers such as bottles, cups and plates, used to improve food handling and transport, can contain chemical substances such as plastic, elements of which can migrate into food. Other chemicals can be used to fight diseases in farm animals or crops, or can sometimes be found in food as a result of a production process such as heating/cooking or decontamination treatment.

Some plants and fungi naturally produce toxins that can contaminate crops and be a concern for human and animal health. People can also be exposed to both naturally occurring and man-made chemical compounds present at various levels in the environment, e.g. in soil, water and the atmosphere. Examples include industrial pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs. A variety of metals can be present naturally in the environment or as a result of human activity.

Latest

As a contribution to the ‘European Green Deal’, EFSA and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have drafted a joint position paper around the idea of “one substance - one assessment” for chemicals. The paper analyses the current situation and proposes solutions that support simplification, cost savings and improved regulatory predictability. The key proposals are a central coordination mechanism, better coordination on or distribution between agencies of tasks (including on chemical mixtures) and access to all available data in the same structured format.

The European Commission published the European Green Deal in December 2019, announcing a chemicals strategy for sustainability. The Commission is looking at how to simplify and strengthen the legal framework and review how to use the EU’s agencies and scientific bodies better to move towards ‘one substance – one assessment’.

Activities

EFSA carries out risk assessments on a wide range of substances, including those that are deliberately added to food and feed, chemical residues that can be present in food and feed due to production, distribution, packaging or consumption, and those that might be present through contact with the environment.

Regulated food ingredients

Some chemicals are added to food for a variety of technical reasons, including to make them taste better, last longer or be more nutritional.

Food chain residues

Sometimes traces of chemicals are unintentionally present in food because of food production and preparation methods, such as residues of pesticides or additives used in animal feed. Small traces of chemicals from packaging and other food contact materials can also unintentionally end up in food.

Contaminants in food and feed

Naturally occurring chemical compounds such as metals and nitrates can be present at various levels in the environment, e.g. soil, water and the atmosphere. They can also occur as residues in food because of their presence as environmental pollutants, as a result of human activities such as farming, industry or car exhausts, or as a result of food production such as high-temperature cooking. People can be exposed to them from the environment or by ingesting contaminated food or water.

Assessing chemicals in food

EFSA’s main task is to carry out scientific risk assessments on possible hazards associated with the food chain, including potential risks posed by chemicals in food. Our scientists use internationally recognised approaches in their risk assessments of chemicals to help safeguard the health of consumers and animals and to help protect the environment. We have developed a comprehensive body of good chemical risk assessment practices to guide our experts to ensure that our assessments respect the highest scientific standards, including on the following topics:

Role

EFSA provides scientific advice in the form of risk assessments and other technical assistance on chemicals in food and feed to European Union risk managers (European Commission, European Parliament, Member States). Risk managers take EFSA’s scientific advice into account together with other factors when making decisions about the safety of these substances for human and animal health and the environment.

  • Market authorisation of chemical substances used in the food chain. Before chemicals can be authorised in the EU for use in food and feed, EFSA carries out strict risk assessments to determine which substances can be used safely and at which levels.
  • Risk assessments are also carried out in relation to contaminants that are considered to be a possible concern for human and/or animal health. Risk managers may take measures to limit human and animal exposure to such substances if EFSA indicates a potential health impact.

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