The European Commission has tightened the rules on the presence of arsenic in food products. 

The allowed concentration of inorganic arsenic in white rice is lowered, while there are new limits for arsenic in some rice-based food items, infant formula, baby foods, fruit juices, and salt.

Arsenic is present at low concentrations in rocks, soil, and natural groundwater, with food and drinking water being the principal routes of human exposure. The inorganic forms of arsenic are more toxic than organic arsenic.

Children under the age of 3 are the most exposed to inorganic arsenic, especially infants who eat rice-based formula. Developmental problems in children have been documented.

High consumers of rice, such as certain ethnic groups, and people who eat a lot of algae-based products are the main groups subjected to inorganic arsenic exposure.

The lower maximum levels are part of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to limit or remove the carcinogenic risk associated with chemicals in food.

Reducing the risk
The decision is based on a 2021 scientific report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and comes after member states were told to monitor the presence of arsenic in foods.

EU rules will follow the Codex Alimentarius maximum level of 0.5 mg/kg for total arsenic in salt. Other products covered are cereals and cereal-based products, non-parboiled milled rice, parboiled and husked rice, rice flour, rice cakes and crackers, and non-alcoholic rice-based drinks. Maximum levels differ depending on the product.

Stella Kyriakides, the commissioner for health and food safety, said: “We are taking additional measures to further reduce the exposure risk of a carcinogenic contaminant from our food chain. Our citizens want the reassurance that the food they eat is safe, and these new rules are yet another proof that food safety standards in the EU remain the highest in the world.”

Safe Food Advocacy Europe said it welcomed any measure that avoids or reduces the exposure of European consumers to harmful substances in food.

Existing maximum levels for arsenic in food products were established in 2015 based on an EFSA opinion that found inorganic arsenic may cause cancer of the skin, bladder, and lungs. 

Due to problems related to the analysis of inorganic arsenic in a number of foods, maximum levels for arsenic were initially only set for rice and rice-based products.

As certain foods covered by the regulation have a long shelf life, items that were lawfully placed on the market before the new rules apply will be allowed to remain on sale.

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