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Heavy Metals in Food and Feed NRL

Fera is the UK National Reference Laboratory for Heavy Metals in Food and Feed and has considerable expertise in this area. Fera has carried out many research projects and surveillance exercises for the UK Food Standards Agency, The EU, and commercial customers by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Applications include speciation (total and inorganic arsenic).

Fera specialises in detecting elements in foodstuffs in both ingredients and processed foods. Fera has developed advanced techniques for example using ICP-MS (Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry) that allows analysis for up to 60 elements in one analytical run.

Contaminants such as heavy metals are substances that have not been intentionally added to food. These substances may be present in food as a result of the various stages of its production, packaging, transport or holding. They also might result from environmental contamination. Since contamination generally has a negative impact on the quality of food and may imply a risk to human health, European legislation lays down maximum allowed limits in foodstuffs. EU regulations cover the following heavy metals: cadmium, lead, mercury and inorganic tin.

EU-RL Heavy Metals

The European Union Reference Laboratory for Heavy Metals in Feed and Food was created to implement Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 on official controls performed to ensure the verification of compliance with the feed and food law, animal health and animal welfare rules. Regulation (EC) No 776/2006 nominates the Joint Research Centre as the European Union Reference Laboratory (EU-RL) for Heavy Metals in Feed and Food. It is established at the JRC Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) and works together with appointed national reference laboratories (NRLs) of the EU Member States.

The three types of matrices covered by the EU-RL are: wild caught fish, food of plant origin (and animal feed).

EU-RL Interlaboratory comparisons
IRMM provides a metrological interlaboratory comparison scheme to enable the benchmarking of laboratory performance through the International Measurement Evaluation Programme (IMEP ®). IMEP provides support to EU policies and the chemical measurement system of the enlarged EU assisting in the development of the national measurement systems.

Laboratories can participate in the regular IMEPs. The IMEP-100 series are interlaboratory comparisons organised on behalf of the EU-RL for Heavy Metals in (Feed) and Food and are open for nominated national reference laboratories only.

Official methods for the determination of heavy metals in feed and food

EU-RL Official methods for the determination of heavy metals in feed and food: A list published by the EU-RL (May 2010).

European legislation

The Contaminants in Food (England) Regulations 2013 make enforcement measures provision for European Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs and Regulation (EC) No 333/2007 prescribes the methods to be used for sampling and analysis for enforcement purposes. There are similar Regulations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Copies of the EU Regulations, and those of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are available from the Food Standards Agency.

Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006: Setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs.

Regulation (EC) No 333/2007: Laying down the sampling methods and the methods of analysis for the official control of the levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, inorganic tin in foodstuffs.

Regulation (EC) No 629/2008: Amending Regulation (EC) No. 1881/2006 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs.

Lead

Over the past decades, the lead level in food has decreased significantly owing to source related efforts to reduce the emission of lead, and improvements in quality assurance of chemical analysis. Lead is present at low concentrations in most foods. Offal and molluscs may contain higher levels. Contamination of food during processing or food production in contaminated areas are the main reasons for enhanced lead intake via foodstuffs.

Absorption of ingested lead may constitute a serious risk to public health. Some chronic effects of lead poisoning are colic, constipation and anaemia. It may also induce increased blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in adults. Foetal neuro-developmental effects and reduced learning capacity in children are among the most serious effects.

Maximum levels in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, which replaces Commission Regulation 466/2001/EC of 8 March 2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in food.

Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of lead in foodstuffs are laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007.

Cadmium

Cadmium may be present in high concentrations in shellfish and in kidneys, particularly from older animals. Certain wild mushrooms may also contain high levels. Cadmium accumulates primarily in the kidneys and may induce kidney dysfunction, skeletal changes and reproductive deficiencies. In 1993 IARC classified cadmium and cadmium compounds in Group I (Human Carcinogens); based on evidence from human studies, mainly those on lung cancer associated with cadmium inhalation in the work place, and from animal studies. The IARC classification is qualitative only.

Maximum levels in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, which replaces Commission Regulation 466/2001/EC of 8 March 2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in food.

Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of cadmium in foodstuffs are laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007.

Mercury

Mercury is a toxic element found mostly in fish and fishery products. Methylmercury, the main form in which mercury is present in seafood, is the most toxic among mercury species. The methylmercury content in fish and shellfish varies, but it is generally assumed that over 90% is in the form of methylmercury. It may induce alterations in the normal development of the brain of infants and may, at higher levels, induce neurological changes in adults. Children exposed to methylmercury prior to birth may experience negative effects on their mental development. Therefore, the levels of mercury and methylmercury in food should be as low as reasonably achievable, (taking into account that for physiological reasons certain fish species concentrate mercury more easily in their tissues than others).

Maximum levels in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, which replaces Commission Regulation 466/2001/EC of 8 March 2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in food.

Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of mercury in foodstuffs are laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007.

Information note concerning "Methyl mercury in fish and fish products" (D/530286).

Mercury in fish: your questions answered by the FSA.

Mercury in food EFSA updates advice on risks for public health.(News Story: 20 December 2012).

EFSA Scientific Opinion on the risk for public health related to the presence of mercury and methylmercury in food.

Adopted: 22 November 2012

Published: 20 December 2012

Tin (inorganic)

Tin is used principally in the production of coatings used in the food industry. Food, particularly canned food, therefore represents the major route of human exposure to tin. For the general population, drinking-water is not a significant source of tin, and levels in drinking-water greater than 1-2mg/litre are exceptional. However, there is increasing use of tin in solder, which may be used in domestic plumbing, and tin has been proposed for use as a corrosion inhibitor. Tin and inorganic tin compounds are poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, do not accumulate in tissues and are rapidly excreted, primarily in the faeces.

The main adverse effect on humans of excessive levels of tin in canned beverages (above 150 mg/kg) or other canned foods (above 250 m/kg) has been acute gastric irritation. There is no evidence of adverse effects in humans associated with chronic exposure to tin.

Maximum levels in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, which replaces Commission Regulation 466/2001/EC of 8 March 2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in food.

Provisions for methods of sampling and analysis for the official control of inorganic tin in foodstuffs are laid down in in Commission Regulation (EC) No 333/2007.

The Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals report on tin is now available to download.

Arsenic

Arsenic is present in seafood at high concentration levels, presumably mainly as organically bound arsenic species. The methylated forms of the element (e.g. dimethylarsinate) have a low level of toxicity, and the principal arsenic species found in fish and crustaceans, arsenobetaine, is considered virtually non-toxic. In shellfish, molluscs and seaweed dimethylarsinyl-riboside derivatives, known as arsenosugars, are the dominating species. The toxicity of these species is not known in detail but appears to be reasonably low.

Inorganic arsenic, present as As (III) and As (V), found in food are the most toxic forms.

The General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002 is EC legislation on general food safety and applies to arsenic in food. Queries can be directed to Gavin Shears, FSA, Inorganic Contaminants gavin.shears@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk

Other Heavy Metals

Whilst no regulatory limits have been set for other heavy metals, other than in natural mineral waters, under EC Regulation 315/93, any "food containing a contaminant in an amount which is unacceptable from the public health viewpoint and in particular at a toxicological level shall not be placed on the market", so indirectly, toxic levels of any heavy metal are controlled by this regulation.

EU-RL Heavy Metals

Regulation (EC) No. 776/2006 nominates the Joint Research Centre as the European Union Reference Laboratory (EU-RL) for Heavy Metals in Feed and Food and it is established at the JRC Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM).

Legislation on heavy metals in feed and food.

Food Standards Agency (FSA)

FSA advice on Regulation and Legislation

Directorate General Health and Consumers

DG Health and Consumers ensures that food and consumer goods sold in the EU are safe, that the EU's internal market works for the benefit of consumers and that Europe helps protect and improve its citizens' health. Work is in collaboration with other EU Institutions, national governments and agencies, consumer organisations, health interest groups, business groups, scientists, researchers and experts.

DG Health and Consumers Food Contaminants - Heavy Metals.