Consumer tips on health and food safety

In Germany, pursuant to section 13 (5) of the Food and Feed Code (Lebensmittel- und Futtermittelgesetzbuch) (previously section 9 (4) of the Foodstuffs and Commodities Act [Lebensmittel- und Bedarfsgegenständegesetz]), the Federal Environment Ministry is the lead authority responsible for preventing risks to consumers arising from food that has been exposed to air, water and soil contaminants (known as environmental contaminants).

These contaminants, also called “undesirable substances”, include environmental contaminants such as the heavy metals lead and mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and other organochlorine compounds. Under German law, only food that is safe may be sold in Germany. Responsibility for the safety of food lies with food business operators who produce, transport, store or sell this food. The competent food inspection authorities of the Länder regularly monitor compliance with the relevant legal provisions.

However, not all food that is consumed is subject to official monitoring. This includes food that is not sold commercially, such as fruits and vegetables from household gardens, mushrooms picked in the wild or freshwater fish caught for personal consumption. However, everyone can play a part in reducing individual intake of undesirable substances through food. A balanced and varied diet is often the best way to minimise the unavoidable intake of unde-sirable substances through food.

The following consumer tips provide additional guidelines for the general public to help individually reduce the intake of environmental contaminants through food:

Limit consumption of wild mushrooms

Pfifferlinge im Korb

The lead, cadmium, mercury and even radionuclide content in wild mushrooms can be much higher than in farmed mushrooms like button mushrooms or in other plant-based food. People who eat wild mushrooms regularly should not consume more than 200 to 250 grams per week (based on the fresh weight). Children should eat even less depending on their body weight. Even larger quantities of fresh wild mushrooms do not pose a risk if only consumed on occasion.

Eat fish with relatively low mercury content if pregnant or breastfeeding

Fischfilet

Fish is an important source of nutrients and should be an integral part of our diet. Fish can be contaminated with mercury to varying degrees depending on water pollution levels, the age and the species of fish. Mercury levels in predatory fish are generally higher than in non-predatory fish. EU legislation defines maximum levels of mercury for fish and fisheries products. As long as these maximum levels, which are monitored by the food inspection authorities of the Länder, are not exceeded, health risks for the general public with typical eating habits are very unlikely. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as well as their unborn and new-born babies are especially at risk from the toxic effects of mercury. As a result, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to mainly consume fish with comparatively lower mercury levels and to avoid the following types of fish (and products made from them) that potentially contain more mercury on the German market: shark (also sold as "Schillerlocken", or strips of smoked dogfish), escolar, eel, spined loach, swordfish, Atlantic and Greenland halibut, pike, monkfish, tuna and Atlantic redfish.

Follow regional advice on freshwater fish caught for personal consumption

Angeler auf See

Stable compounds such as dioxins and PCBs have been accumulating in riverbeds for many years. As a result, wild fish in rivers can still ingest considerable amounts of harmful dioxins and PCBs through the food chain. This is why freshwater fish still contain high levels of contaminants even though significantly fewer dioxins and PCBs are discharged into the envi-ronment today than in the past. Dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish, as they are particularly persistent and highly soluble in fat. Eels are particularly fatty fish. Levels above the maximum set by law for dioxins and PCBs are relatively common in freshwater fish. People who fish (and their families) should therefore check the contamination level of fish in the respective river sections with the competent Länder authorities. 

This consumer tip is currently under review as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reduced the health-based guidance values for dioxins and PCBs in 2018 in response to new toxicological findings. In addition, current data from official monitoring activities will also be used to assess whether and how the consumer tip should reflect the potential levels of perfluoro- and polyfluoro alkylated substances (PFAS) perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in these foods. The reason is that EFSA defined provisional health-based guideline values for PFOS and PFOA in 2018 in response to new toxicological findings, which are significantly lower than before. In its opinion Number 032/2019 "New health-based guidance values for the industrial chemicals PFOS and PFOA" published on 21 August 2019, the BfR recommends using these new, provisional EFSA guidance values for future assessments of PFOS and PFOA content in food. As soon as the new opinion of EFSA supplemented by additional PFASs in food and feed is published, it will also be included in the review.

What to be aware of if you eat offal

Reh im Wald

Offal from wild game

In contrast to the offal of many farm animals, which show decreasing levels of heavy metal contamination, offal from wild game, such as rabbits, deer and wild boar, may be significantly contaminated with heavy metals and also with dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). As a general rule, the offal of wild animals should only be consumed on occasion. In particular, wild boar liver or other offal of wild boar may also be significantly contaminated with the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This is why it is advisable to eat offal from wild boar only infrequently. As a precaution, women of childbearing age, including women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children should avoid eating offal from wild boar.

Sheep liver

The term sheep liver is a collective term that refers to liver from all different kinds sheep, regardless of age. To date, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has collected 140 results of sheep liver samples from six different Länder. The levels of dioxins and PCBs are very high in most of the samples, with the majority exceeding the maximum levels applicable in the EU. The BfR therefore recommends not eating sheep liver as a precaution.

Canned cod liver in oil

Studies have shown that canned cod liver in oil often contains high levels of dioxins and PCBs. At the beginning of July 2008, an EU-wide maximum level (limit value) of 25 picogrammes per gramme wet weight in total was introduced for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in fish liver and fish liver products. This maximum level was replaced in January 2012 with a limit value of 20 picogrammes per gramme wet weight, also in total, for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs. Even this lower maximum level does not ensure that the health of consumers is protected if cod liver in oil is consumed regularly, since at current levels of exposure, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the maximum tolerable intake levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs will be exceeded. In the interest of preventive health protection, consuming cod liver in oil in the usual portion size of 150 grams every two months at most is recom-mended.

This consumer tip is currently under review as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reduced the health-based guidance value for dioxins and PCBs in 2018 in response to new toxicological findings. In addition, current data from official monitoring activities will also be used to assess whether and how the consumer tip should reflect the potential levels of perfluoro- and polyfluoro alkylated substances (PFAS) such as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in these foods. The reason is that EFSA defined provisional health-based guideline values for PFOS and PFOA in 2018 in response to new toxicological findings, which are significantly lower than before. In its opinion Number 032/2019 "New health-based guidance values for the industrial chemicals PFOS and PFOA" published on 21 August 2019, the BfR recommends using these new, provisional EFSA guidance val-ues for future assessments of PFOS and PFOA content in food. As soon as the new opinion of EFSA supplemented by additional PFASs in food and feed is published, it will also be in-cluded in the review.