EUROPE – As part of its “Europe’s Fighting Cancer Strategy,” which aims to reduce or eliminate the carcinogenic risk from chemicals in food in EU member states, the European Union (EU) has established new limitations on the amount of arsenic permissible in some food items, including infant formula.

The new regulations, which are based on a scientific report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) from 2021, will lower the permitted level of inorganic arsenic in white rice and set new restrictions on arsenic in common rice-based foods like baby food and infant formula, salt, and fruit juices.

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

Earlier, in 2009, EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (EFSA’s CONTAM) adopted an opinion that concluded the provisional tolerable weekly intake (PTWI) for arsenic set forth by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)—15 μg/kg—to no longer be appropriate.

CONTAM drew this conclusion based on data showing inorganic arsenic to cause lung, bladder, and skin cancer, alongside other adverse effects, at exposures lower than 15 μg/kg.

“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,” said Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, on announcing the new rules.

Arsenic, one of WHO’s 10 chemicals of major public health concern, is present in rocks, soil, and natural groundwater at low concentrations, with food and drinking water being the primary routes of human exposure.

The new EU standards will adhere to the Codex Alimentarius maximum level (ML) for total arsenic in salt, which is 0.5 mg/kg. MLs in other products covered vary depending on the product.

The majority of inorganic arsenic exposure occurs in children under three, particularly in babies who consume rice-based formula, resulting in developmental issues. This is based on a “benchmark dose lower confidence limit” (BMDL01) set between 0.3–8 μg/kg by the CONTAM panel.

Responding to the rule change, the Brussels-based organization Safer Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) said:

“SAFE welcomes any measure that avoids or reduces the exposure of European consumers to harmful substances in food.”

Products that were lawfully marketed before the new regulations took effect will be permitted to continue being sold because some of the foods covered by the regulation have a long shelf life.

The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) presented a strategy to reduce the amount of lead in baby food in January, prompted by research that identified heavy metals in 95% of the baby foods it examined three years back.

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