The greatest risks of serious health effects from contaminants in food are associated with arsenic and certain mycotoxins, according to an analysis in Finland.

The Finnish Food Authority (Ruokavirasto) wanted to identify the important chemical contaminants covered in legislation or monitoring recommendations.

Prioritization of contaminants is based on data on the dietary exposure of consumers as well as the toxicity. They were put in order by seriousness of the health effects and level of risk for high users. Onset of cancer or fetal harm was assessed as more serious than, for example, diarrhea.

Contaminants with chronic effects were divided into four groups: compounds which are carcinogenic or toxic to reproduction and which do not have a threshold value; endocrine disrupting substances; compounds that are toxic to important organs or processes; and compounds with less serious or reversible effects.

Those with acute health effects were split into two groups based on whether or not they can cause a fatal reaction in amounts that could be found in contaminated food.

Help boost available data
The highest priority group identified were carcinogenic compounds such as environmental toxins, mycotoxins or compounds formed during food processing.

Factors taken into account included the age and coverage of national data sets, concentrations of contaminants in different food groups, sources of consumer exposure and whether concentrations measured in Finland differ from EU averages.

To help plan controls, it was identified which food groups would be most relevant for monitoring and determining the levels of each contaminant. The main food groups for multiple contaminants were cereals and cereal products; foods for infants and young children; vegetables including roots; and meat and meat products. These groups are consumed often and in large amounts so are an important source of exposure to many contaminants, said the report.

The project identified contaminants and food groups for which better national occurrence data is needed. Some exposure estimates were based on surveys in Finland and others on average data from EU countries.

Ranking and uncertainty
The ranking based on chronic health effects and risk to high users put aflatoxins, inorganic arsenic, acrylamide, furan and methyl furans, lead and Ochratoxin A as moderate or high risk. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, patulin, Bisphenol A, cadmium, ergot alkaloids, 3-MCPD and nitrate were judged as low risk. Benzo(a)pyrene, phtalates, erucic acid and methyl mercury and inorganic mercury had a negligible risk.

However, researchers said there were data gaps on contaminants with the highest risk. For example, fish contains high amounts of total arsenic but more information was needed on levels of inorganic arsenic and the concentrations and variations in plant-based milk substitute drinks. Acrylamide occurrence data on food for children and non-alcoholic drinks were scarce or needed updating.

Some contaminants, such as mycotoxins, ergot alkaloids and nitrate, are affected by weather conditions. So, findings from past years predict poorly future results, and annual national monitoring is necessary for compounds that can occur in food grown in Finland. Climate change is likely to create conditions that are more suitable for mycotoxins and possibly other contaminants.

Concentrations of contaminants in the environment, such as heavy metals and some organic pollutants, change slowly in food unless conditions alter. This means annual monitoring of these substances is not as critical as long as the data on their occurrence in food in Finland are sufficient for decision-making, found the report.

The priority list will be updated in future years to take into account the latest information.

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