Consumer Protection against Environmental Contaminants in Food

Dioxins and PCBs

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Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Throughout Europe, since 1 January 2012 or December 2013, ambitious legally binding maximum levels (thresholds) and voluntary action levels (early warning system) have applied to harmful dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in food of animal origin, vegetable fats and baby food. The previously differing national maximum levels for non dioxin-like PCBs in food were harmonised and the scope of the provisions was expanded for precautionary reasons to include food for babies and toddlers. These measures are particularly effective for improving the protection of consumer health and food safety.

Action levels and maximum levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs (dl-PCBs) applying in selected food types throughout Europe

Type of foodEU action level pg WHO-TEQ/g fatEU maximum level pg WHO-TEQ/g fat
Dioxinsdl-PCBsDioxinsDioxins + dl-PCB
Poultry
Meat and meat products1.250.751.753.0
Oils and fats--1.753.0
Hen's eggs and egg products1.751.752.55.0
Beef and sheep meat
Meat and meat products1.751.752.54.0
Oils and fats--2.54.0
Milk and dairy products including butter fat1.7522.55.5
Pork
Meat and meat products0.750.51.01.25
Oils and fats --1.01.25
Animal products
Mixed animal fats1.00.751.52.5
  • Measuring unit: 1 pg (picogram) = 0.000 000 000 001 gram
  • Action levels: Commission Recommendation of 11 September 2014 amending the Annex to Recommendation 2013/711/EU on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feed and food (2014/663/EU; Official Journal of the European Union Number L 272, p. 17-18)
  • Maximum levels: Comission Regulation (EU) Number 1259/2011 of 2 December 2011 amending Regulation (EC) Number 1881/2006 as regards maximum levels for dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non dioxin-like PCBs in foodstuffs (Official Journal of the European Union L 320 of 3 December 2011, p. 18 - 23)

Since 1 January 2012, a maximum level of 40 nanograms (= 0.000 000 001 gram) per gram of fat for harmful non dioxin-like PCBs in food such as poultry, beef, mutton, pork, cow's milk, eggs and mixed animal fats has applied throughout Europe, supplementing the regulations on maximum levels for dioxins and the sum of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs. It is lower than the national regulations applicable up to that date. The German provisions on maximum levels limiting the amount of non-dioxin-like PCBs in food such as horse, goat and rabbit meat and meat from feathered and furred game and wild boar, applicable since 1988, go beyond European legislation and are defined in section 4 of the annex to the German Contaminants Ordinance (Kontaminanten-Verordnung KmV).

Since 1 January 2014, updated maximum levels for dioxins and PCBs in livers and derived products from terrestrial livestock have applied throughout Europe. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment recommends refraining from the consumption of sheep liver.

Since 1 January 2014, updated maximum levels for dioxins and PCBs in livers of terrestrial livestock have applied throughout Europe

Type of foodEU maximum pg WHO-TEQ/g wet weightEU maximum level ng/g wet weight
DioxinsDioxins + dl-PCBndl-PCB
Liver and derived products from poultry, beef and pork0.30.53.0
Liver and derived products from sheep1.252.03.0
  • Measuring unit: 1 ng (nanogram) = 0.000 000 001 gram
  • Measuring unit: 1 pg (picogram) = 0.000 000 000 001 gram
  • Maximum levels: Commission Regulation (EU) No 1067/2013 of 30 October 2013 amending Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 as regards maximum levels of the contam-inants dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non dioxin-like PCBs in liver of terrestrial live-stock

Dioxins and PCBs in the environment

Harmful dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can enter the food chain through air, soil or sediments. These impurities in food are therefore also referred to as environmental contaminants. Dioxins have never been intentionally produced by artificial means. Dioxins are unintended or undesired by-products of chemical processes in chlorine chemistry and all combustion processes involving chlorine and organic carbon under certain conditions such as temperatures between 250 degrees Celsius and 800 degrees Celsius or a specific duration of the combustion process. In contrast, PCBs were formerly produced for specific purposes, mainly as non-inflammable, non-conductive viscous liquids in transformers and in hydraulics (mining).

Drop in dioxin emissions in the environment from 1990 to 2018

Since the mid-80s, numerous regulatory measures, German air quality legislation in particular, led to a drop in the release of dioxins and PCBs into the environment. Between 1990 and 2004, dioxin emissions from known sources were reduced by more than 90 percent. A further drop was recorded up to 2009. From then on, dioxin emissions remained relatively stable at a low level.

Since 1990, the amount of emissions produced by the individual emission sources has changed significantly. While waste incineration was by far the main source of emissions in 1990, in 2018 wild fires, small firing installations, transport and thermal processes in metal extraction and processing made up the largest share of remaining dioxin emissions.

How dioxins and PCBs enter the food chain

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Dioxins and PCBs are very persistent and continue to contaminate sites everywhere in the environment, albeit at a lower level than before. On the one hand, soils and sediments in water bodies store pollutants, while on the other, they are the main sources of pollutants entering the food chain through re-dissolution. Negligent disposal of waste products and appliances containing PCBs leads to a further spread of these contaminants in the environment, and consequently to their presence in the food chain. The leakage of dioxins and PCBs into the environment has been significantly reduced over the past 20 years. This reduction, however, is not reflected in corresponding lower contaminant levels in all food types from all different husbandry methods due to the persistence of these substances.

Accumulation of dioxins and PCBs in the food chain

Milk is the most thoroughly analysed type of food. Between 1987 and 2000 the dioxin content of milk dropped by around 80 percent from approximately 2.3 to around 0.4 picogram dioxin toxic equivalent per gram of milk fat (1 picogram = 0.000 000 000 001 gram). Since then, the content has remained at a low level with minor fluctuations. Thus the average dioxin content in milk is also well below the EU-wide action level or maximum level, which entered into force on 1 January 2012.

Decrease in dioxin levels in milk from 1987 to 2018

Information chart on the decrease in dioxin contamination in cow's milk from 1987 to 2018. The bar chart shows a steady decrease in dioxin contamination in cow's milk since 1987. From 01.07.2002 to 31.12.2011, the EU maximum content was 3.0 pictograms per gram of fat, while the EU action value was 2.0 pictograms per gram of fat. Since 1 January 2012, the EU maximum level has been 2.5 pictograms per gram of fat, while the EU action level has been 1.75 pictograms per gram of fat.

Information chart on the decrease in dioxin contamination in cow's milk from 1987 to 2018. The bar chart shows a steady decrease in dioxin contamination in cow's milk since 1987. From 01.07.2002 to 31.12.2011, the EU maximum content was 3.0 pictograms per gram of fat, while the EU action value was 2.0 pictograms per gram of fat. Since 1 January 2012, the EU maximum level has been 2.5 pictograms per gram of fat, while the EU action level has been 1.75 pictograms per gram of fat.

Source: Annual reports by the former Federal Health Office and the State Institute for Chemical and Veterinary Analysis of Food (CVUA) Freiburg, the Chemical Land and Federal Veterinarian Investigation Centre, Münster, the Lower-Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, Oldenburg, the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety, Oberschleißheim, and the federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety

Nevertheless, studies conducted by the federal states provide data for the whole of Germany showing that high levels of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs exceeding EU maximum levels are regularly found in rare foods such as the liver of lambs, sheep, game or Baltic cod and in the muscle meat of wild river fish. As a result, these products are not marketable. In addition to existing regulations and laws, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety has developed consumer tips on health and food safety.

The diagram illustrates that 70 percent of dioxin and PCB intake from foodstuffs are linked to the following foods of animal origin: eggs, milk and dairy products, poultry, beef and pork.

Early warning system

Alongside European-wide legally binding maximum levels for dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in various food types, non-binding action levels were set across Europe in 2002 as an additional measure to limit the presence of dioxins and PCBs in food. Dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs are emitted from different sources. This is why separate action levels were laid down for each group of substances. Depending on the type of food, action levels are between 25 and 30 percent lower than maximum levels. Action levels serve as an early warning system to help recognise above average concentration, i.e. levels exceeding the background concentration which cannot be avoided by producers. Applying action levels helps reduce dioxins and PCB concentrations in food. Action levels serve to identify, control or eliminate sources of contamination before maximum levels are exceeded. The Commission Recommendation 2013/711/EU of 3 December 2012 on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feed and food includes the different action levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs for each group of substances applicable since 1 January 2012.