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Food Safety

Cadmium in food

Cadmium (Cd) is a heavy metal found as an environmental contaminant, both through natural occurrence and from industrial and agricultural sources. Foodstuffs are the main source of cadmium exposure for the non-smoking general population.

The food groups that contribute most of the dietary cadmium exposure are cereals and cereal products, vegetables, nuts and pulses, starchy roots or potatoes, and meat and meat products. Due to their high consumption of cereals, nuts, oilseeds and pulses, vegetarians have a higher dietary exposure. This is also the case for regular consumers of bivalve molluscs and wild mushrooms.

Cadmium is primarily toxic to the kidney and can cause renal failure. Cadmium can also cause bone demineralisation. Cadmium is classified as a human carcinogen (Group 1) on the basis of occupational studies.

Newer data on human exposure to cadmium have indicated an increased risk of cancer such as in the lung, endometrium, bladder, and breast.

The mean dietary exposure for adults across Europe is close to or slightly exceeding the tolerable weekly intake. Subgroups such as vegetarians, children, smokers and people living in highly contaminated areas may exceed the tolerable weekly intake by about 2-fold. Tobacco smoking can contribute to a similar internal exposure as that from the diet.

In view of a possible reduction of dietary exposure to cadmium, in 2014 several maximum levels were reviewed and additional maximum levels were established for food commodities of concern for which no maximum levels existed yet. These new maximum levels aim especially at an increased protection of infants and young children and concern chocolate and several categories of infant formula.

For chocolate, three maximum levels have been established depending on the content of the chocolate varieties. The strictest maximum levels apply to the chocolate varieties mostly eaten by children. The darker the chocolate, the higher the maximum levels are. A fourth maximum level is set for cocoa powder destined for direct consumption. These levels apply since 1 January 2019.

In 2014 in view of a possible future lowering of existing maximum levels for a number of important contributors to dietary exposure (cereals, potatoes and other vegetables), a recommendation focusing on a progressive implementation by farmers and food business operators of available mitigation measures for reduction of cadmium levels in food was published. This recommendation further encouraged research and investigations to fill any possible gaps in knowledge on mitigation methods.

Because, after implementation of the mitigation measures, on the basis of the most recent occurrence data, there was room to further lower the maximum levels for some commodities and to set additional MLs for some other ones commodities, in 2021, Maximum Levels for many commodities were either lowered or established, thus ensuring a high level of health protection.

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