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Chemical contaminants in food and feed

Chemical contaminants are substances that are unintentionally present in food or feed. These substances may be present in food as a result of various stages of its production, processing or transport. They might also result from environmental contamination. Chemical contaminants may be harmful to humans and animals.

The most relevant food and feed contaminants include:

  • Natural toxins – naturally occurring substances that are produced by different organisms. Examples include plant toxins such as alkaloids or mycotoxins.
  • Environmental contaminants – substances that are released into air, water or soil often as a result of industrial or agricultural activities. They can also enter the food and feed chain. Environmental contaminants include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, persistent chlorinated pesticides, and brominated flame retardants but also metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.
  • Process contaminants – chemicals that naturally form in food and feed during industrial processes or cooking, such as acrylamide and furan.

EFSA's role

EFSA provides scientific advice and carries out risk assessments on a wide range of chemicals that can be present in food and feed due to food production, distribution, packaging, as well as those that might be present in the environment naturally or as a result of man-made activity. This work is carried out by EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain.

The Authority also collects occurrence data on contaminants in food and feed and supports the coordination of data collection and monitoring by Member States.

European Union risk managers use EFSA’s scientific advice to support in making decisions about the safety of these substances for human and animal health.

Activities

EFSA has assessed a variety of chemical contaminants or groups of chemicals that can contaminate food or feed. Below are some examples:

Natural toxins

  • Mycotoxins, such as aflatoxins and fusarium toxins, and their metabolites
  • Alkaloids, such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids and glycoalkaloids

Environmental contaminants

Process contaminants

EU framework

Since contamination generally has a negative impact on the quality of food and feed and may imply a risk to human and animal health, the EU has taken measures to minimise contaminants in food and feed.

See the European Commission’s factsheet on food contaminants: "Managing food contaminants: how the EU ensures that our food is safe”.

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