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Food Safety

Arsenic in food

Arsenic is a widely found contaminant which occurs both naturally and as a result of human activity. Arsenic is a metalloid that occurs in different inorganic and organic – i.e. containing carbon – forms.

These are found in the environment both from natural occurrence and from anthropogenic activity. The inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic as compared to the organic arsenic.

Across the different age classes, the main contributors to the dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic are rice, rice-based products, other grains and grain-based products and drinking water.

Foods for infants and young children make a relevant contribution in the dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic in this population group. In the adult population vegetables and fish are also apparent sources of inorganic arsenic.

The main adverse effects reported to be associated with long term ingestion of inorganic arsenic in humans are: skin lesions, cancer, developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular diseases, abnormal glucose metabolism, and diabetes.

There is emerging evidence of negative impacts on foetal and infant development, particularly reduced birth weight.

Children under three years of age are the most exposed to inorganic arsenic. High consumers of rice in Europe, such as certain ethnic groups and high consumers of algae-based products can exceed their tolerable weekly intake for inorganic arsenic.

The available evidence does not indicate a different dietary exposure for vegetarians from that of the general population, unless they consume a large amount of algae-based products.

Due to problems related to analysis of (inorganic) arsenic in a number of food commodities, in 2015 maximum levels for arsenic were initially only set for rice and derived products.

Once reliable analytical methods became available, by means of Commission Recommendation (EU) 2015/1381, Member States were recommended to monitor during 2016, 2017 and 2018 the presence of inorganic arsenic in a wide variety of food products.

On the basis of the gathered data, EFSA published in 2021 its Scientific Report on the chronic dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic. On the basis of this report, new MLs were established for various food items and the existing MLs were reviewed, which will help to reduce the consumer exposure to arsenic.

Useful links:

Maximum levels for arsenic in certain foods have been established by Commission Regulation (EC) No 2015/1006 and Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/465.

Arsenic Monitoring recommendation

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

EFSA scientific opinions & Reports:

EFSA Scientific Opinion on Arsenic in Food

2014 EFSA scientific report on the chronic dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic

2021 EFSA scientific report on the chronic dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic

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