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Process contaminants

Process contaminants are substances that form in food or in food ingredients when they undergo chemical changes during processing. Processing methods include fermentation, smoking, drying, refining and high-temperature cooking. Many foods must be cooked to actually be edible and digestible. It also makes them tastier. However, baking, frying, grilling or barbecuing, either at home or in manufacturing, can have undesired consequences. Besides the loss of some nutrients like vitamins, potentially harmful by-products can develop too.


January 2018 EFSA’s experts used an updated scientific approach to reassess the possible long-term adverse effects of the food processing contaminant 3-MCPD on the kidney and male fertility. Consumption levels of 3-MCPD in food are considered safe for most consumers but there is a potential health concern among high consumers in younger age groups. In the worst case scenario, infants receiving formula only may slightly exceed the safe level.

Oct 2017 Risk assessment of furan in foods published, confirming previous evaluations that it could lead to possible long-term liver damage

Jul 2017 A draft regulation to limit acrylamide in food is finalised by the European Commission, likely to enter into force in Spring 2018

June 2017 Commission proposes to amend Regulation EC/1881/2006 on maximum levels of GE in vegetable oils and fats, infant formula, follow-on formula and foods for special medical purposes intended for infants and young children

2016 EFSA publishes risk assessment of 5 substances in palm oil and other vegetable oils: glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), and 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their fatty acid esters. The opinion highlights health concerns over the genotoxic carcinogen GE in particular as average consumer exposure is above what would be considered of low concern for public health.

2015 EFSA confirms previous evaluations that acrylamide in food potentially increases the risk of developing cancer for consumers in all age groups

2013 Report on 3-MCPD in food includes a primary exposure assessment

2011 Updated report on furan in food includes new exposure estimates

2011 An EFSA-funded 90-day toxicological study of 3-MCPD and its esters comes out

2010 Second report on furan levels in food

2009 First report on monitoring of furan levels in food

2008 EFSA provides advice to European Commission on 3-MCPD esters in refined plant oils and fats, spreads and infant formula in support of the EU position at the UN’s Codex Alimentarius

2008 Opinion published on suitable indicators for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in food


EFSA provides independent scientific advice to risk managers on process contaminants in food. This advice allows EU decision-makers to manage possible risks for consumers associated with these substances in food.

EFSA also compiles EU-wide data on process contaminants found in a range of foods for use in ongoing or future assessments. The data help to identify trends in process contaminant levels in food over time so that risk managers can also evaluate the impact of monitoring and control measures. EU Member States submit the data which may be compiled into annual reports or made available in EFSA’s Data Warehouse.

EU framework

Process contaminants are not intentionally added to food but they may be present as a result of the various stages of its production. Since contamination generally has a negative impact on the quality of food and may imply a risk to human health, the EU has taken measures to minimise contaminants in foodstuffs.

EU legislation on contaminants in food is laid down in Regulation 315/93/EEC. The EU does not permit on the market food containing a contaminant to an amount unacceptable from the public health viewpoint. Also, contaminant levels need to be kept as low as can reasonably be achieved following recommended good working practices.

To protect public health maximum levels have been set for the following process contaminants:

  • 3-moochloropropane-1,2-diol (3-MCPD) in some foods
  • Glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE)
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbos (PAHs)

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