By Wendelyn Jones
Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences

While IAFNS continues its research on pathogens in low-moisture foods recently covered in Food Safety News, there are other elements of our food safety program that deliver public benefit.  Notably, IAFNS addresses heavy metals through several programs that reflect the input of university, industry and government advisers – the triad that informs IAFNS governance and activities as we advance food safety and nutrition sciences.

A Framework for Heavy Metal Exposure Reduction in Human Diets — Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic are ubiquitous in the environment due to natural occurrence (e.g., in agricultural soils) and human activities. Heavy metals can sometimes unavoidably enter the food supply from various routes such as soil, water and air, as well as agricultural practices. 

Aligned with the U.S. FDA’s ‘Closer to Zero’ initiative for reducing toxic elements in foods for babies and infants, the IAFNS Food and Chemical Safety Committee has launched complementary research projects that aim to develop a framework for reducing exposure to heavy metals in foods. Framework elements will include metal/commodity prioritization, concentration ranges, exposure assessments, agricultural practices, and current and future mitigation options along the production and supply chains.

Review of Regulatory Reference Values and Background Levels for Heavy Metals in the Human Diet — The U.S. FDA has identified dietary exposure to heavy metals as a public health concern, focusing particularly on arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. One way to assess exposure risk is to compare established safe exposure limits (reference values) with current population-based dietary background levels. In a recent paper, information on reference values and dietary background exposure were quickly evaluated and updated. These new regulatory and consumption levels inform a novel, interactive, web-based tool that can be used for screening-level assessments of potential risks of heavy metals in foods and ingredients.

Metal Dietary Exposure Screening Tool— It is important to apply the best science tools available to evaluate potential hazards like metals — particularly when they find their way into foods from agricultural soils and other media. The Committee prioritized the development of a heavy metal screening tool to provide additional context of risk to exposure of five heavy metals found in foods and ingredients. IAFNS and the Joint Institute of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) collaborated on the development of a new online, user-friendly metal dietary exposure screening tool which is hosted on JIFSAN’s website. This tool is intended to be used by risk assessors and managers to rapidly evaluate potential public health risk when confronted with the detection of select heavy metals in foods and food ingredients. Importantly, this tool is only one part of a comprehensive decision-making process. An earlier version of the tool and the supporting publication are available here

Mitigation Strategies —To help address the risks posed by metals, new projects include identifying which foods contain the highest levels of these metals; and based on US consumption of these foods by age group, which food-metal combinations cause the greatest potential exposure via diets. This research will examine which foods contain the highest levels of heavy metals; and based on U.S. consumption of these foods by different age groups, which food-metal dyads cause the greatest human exposures. 

Getting Down to Cases — IAFNS is also supporting some case studies of rice and spinach. Rice may be a source of arsenic and other elemental toxins (e.g., Mercury and Cadmium) in the human diet. Spinach may also be a source of Cadmium and Lead as well as other chemicals but the processes that lead to levels of concern in spinach differ from those in rice. 

This additional new project will aim to design an adaptive, multi-part scoring system as the basis for prioritization of mitigation factors. This system will account for differences in commodities, metal combinations, soil-plant interactions and geochemistry, processing methods, and impact of these terms on the mean and variability of the metal concentrations of interest.

IAFNS continues to track food safety issues in alignment with the valued input of our university, industry and government advisers and members. Find out more about IAFNS’ food safety research here and how we are looking to bring forward positive change across the food and beverage ecosystem. 

The Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences is committed to leading positive change across the food and beverage ecosystem. IAFNS is a 501(c)(3) science-focused nonprofit uniquely positioned to mobilize government, industry and academia to drive, fund and lead actionable research.

Wendelyn Jones

About the author: Wendelyn Jones, PhD, is Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS). She has a passion for bringing together science and society, drawing from her global experiences working across chemical, agricultural, food and health sectors. She applies her PhD in life sciences to extend IAFNS’ contribution to, and impact within, diverse scientific and health communities.

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