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EFSA: Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food

(04.12.2009)


Background:
Arsenic is a widely-occurring contaminant which occurs both naturally and as a result of human activity. It appears in many different forms, which can be either organic (i.e. containing carbon) or inorganic. Food is the main source of exposure to arsenic for the general population in Europe.  The inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic as compared to the organic arsenic but so far most of the occurrence data in food collected in the framework of official food control are still reported as total arsenic without differentiating the various arsenic species.

The need for speciation data is evident because several investigations have shown that especially in seafood most of the arsenic is present in organic forms that are less toxic. Consequently, a risk assessment not taking into account the different species but considering total arsenic as being present exclusively as inorganic arsenic would lead to a considerable overestimation of the health risk related to dietary arsenic exposure.

EFSA was asked by the European Commission to assess the health risks related to the presence of arsenic as a contaminant in foodstuffs, as there are currently no harmonised maximum levels for total arsenic in foodstuffs in Europe nor for inorganic arsenic. EFSA’s scientific advice will help to inform any follow-up action to be taken by the Commission and/or EU Member States.

EFSA's assessment is following a call (see the news below) requesting from all stakeholders the submission of speciation data with respect to arsenic in food. 15 European countries submitted more than 100,000 results on arsenic concentrations in various food commodities. Unfortunately, two thirds of the samples were below the limit of detection. Approximately 98 % of the results were reported as total arsenic, and only a few investigations differentiated between the various arsenic species. The highest total arsenic levels were measured in the following food commodities: fish and seafood, food products or supplements based on algae, especially hijiki, and cereal and cereal products, with particularly high concentrations in rice grains and rice-based products, and bran and germ.

EFSA's opinion:
The CONTAM Panel compared amounts of arsenic that people could consume through food and drink to levels which may cause certain health problems. As there was little or no difference between the two, the Panel could not rule out the possibility of a health risk for some people. As a result, the Panel recommended that exposure to inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form, should be reduced.

However, the Panel also highlighted considerable uncertainties in relation to its risk assessment. It stressed the need for more data on levels of organic and inorganic arsenic in different foodstuffs, as well as on the relationship between arsenic intake levels and possible health effects.

Source: adapted from EFSA


The original report

EFSA: Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food


Related studies

UK Food Standards Agency: Survey of total and inorganic arsenic in rice drinks

UK Food Standards Agency: Levels of arsenic in rice: the effects of cooking



Related EVISA Resources

Link Database: Arsenic species and human health/nutrition/metabolism
Link Database: Toxicity of arsenic species



Related EVISA News

May 26, 2009: UK Food Standards Agency releases research on arsenic in rice milk
January 31, 2009: Using the right recipe for cooking rice reduces toxic inorganic arsenic content
December 4, 2008: High level of inorganic arsenic in blue mussels from Norwegian Fjords
November 11, 2008: EFSA calls for data on arsenic levels in food and water
March 15, 2008: Arsenic in rice milk exceeds EU and US drinking water standards
February 15, 2008:
Arsenic speciation in rice: a question of the rice plant species
January 31, 2008: New arsenic species detected in carrot samples
March 7, 2007: Elevated Arsenic Levels Found In Rice Grown In South Central States of the USA

September 7, 2006: Toxic inorganic arsenic species found in Japanese seaweed food
August 3, 2005: Surprisingly high concentrations of toxic arsenic species found in U.S. rice


last time modified: December 4, 2009




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