EU lowers maximum authorised levels for cadmium and lead contaminants

Sep 24, 2021
Sébastien Bouley

The EU has lowered the maximum authorised levels for the harmful heavy metal contaminants, cadmium and lead, in food and drink sold in Europe.

Cadmium is a heavy metal that exists in the environment as a contaminant. It can be found naturally in the soil due to volcanic activity, forest fires and rock erosion but it can also come from industrial and agricultural sources.

Cadmium is primarily toxic to the kidney – it can cause renal failure – but it can also lead to bone demineralisation and is classified as a Group One human carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). More recent data on human exposure to the contaminant have suggested an increased risk of some cancers such as lung, endometrium, bladder, and breast cancer.

Lead, meanwhile, is an environmental contaminant that occurs naturally but, to a greater extent, from human activities. When above certain levels, it attacks the central nervous system and can harm cardiovascular and kidney health in adults. Cereal products and grains, vegetables (especially potatoes and leafy vegetables) and tap water are among the biggest sources of dietary lead exposure in Europe.

‘A high level of health protection’

The latest regulation revising the levels of lead and cadmium in certain foods will enter into force later this month on 30th and 31st August 2021, respectively.

A statement by the European Commission said: “Because, after implementation of the mitigation measures, on the basis of the most recent occurrence data, there was room to further lower the maximum levels for some commodities and to set additional maximum levels (MLs) for some other commodities, in 2021, maximum levels for many commodities were either lowered or established, thus ensuring a high level of health protection.”

Many of the new lower levels aim to increase protection offered to those at most risk, such as babies and young children.

Specifically, the EU has lowered the maximum permitted level of lead in the following food products: infant formulae and follow-on formulae marketed in powdered form; processed cereal-based foods and baby foods for infants and young children; foods for special medical purposes intended specifically for infants and young children marketed in powdered form; infant and young children’s drinks sold as such, marketed in liquid form or to be prepared at home. Updated levels for lead also apply to some vegetables, such as potatoes, kohlrabi, wild mushrooms, and ginger, wine, and dried spices.

New maximum cadmium levels also now apply to some vegetables, dried pulses and protein ingredients made from pulses; various oilseeds such as rapeseed, soy beans, linseed and sunflower seeds; cereals such as wheat, quinoa, rice and barley; baby food, and formulae marketed to young children.

The levels set for chocolate and cocoa remain unchanged. Europeans are the biggest chocolate consumers in the world, making up just 6% of the world’s population but eating half of the world’s chocolate, and the EU had already set limits for the amount of cadmium authorised in chocolate. The level for milk chocolate with less than 30% total dry cocoa solids is 0.10 mg per kilo of wet weight while the level for chocolate with 50% or more total dry cocoa solids is 0.80 mg.

Chocolate manufacturers can reduce levels in finished products by using a variety of cocoa beans, for instance. (Levels can be affected by the geographical location, soil acidity and the cocoa variety used.)

To read the new regulation, including a table of all the foodstuffs affected by lower authorised levels, click here.

Heavy metal baby food backlash

Earlier this year, major baby food manufacturers in the US faced a wave of class action lawsuits following the publication of a government report that alleged “dangerously high levels” levels of heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic and cadmium in baby food products.

Published by the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, the report found that commercial baby foods were tainted with “significant levels” of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury that can be neurotoxic, especially to babies and young children.