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Europe Sets Maximum Levels for Dioxins and PCBs in Food and Feed

Published on 23 February, 2006, Last updated at 05:12 GMT

13th Feb, 2006: BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Commission Friday adopted new implementing legislation setting maximum levels for the sum of dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in food and feed. From November 2006, any food or feed in which the sum of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs exceeds these maximum levels will not be allowed to be marketed in the European Union.

Dioxins and PCBs are toxic chemicals that can cause serious health effects such as cancer, hormone disruption, reduced ability to reproduce, skin toxicity and immune system disorders.

Maximum levels for dioxins in food of animal origin and all animal feed have been in place across the European Union since July 2002. But due to lack of sufficient data and scientific information at the time, no levels were set for dioxin-like PCBs.

Since 2002, new data on dioxin-like PCBs has become available, and the new legislation lays down mandatory limits for the combined level of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs based on World Health Organization toxic equivalency factors for these substances.

The new legislation is designed to prevent dioxins and PCBs from entering the food supply as happened in Belgium and the Netherlands late last month, when dioxin was found in pig and poultry feed used by hundreds of farms.

The discovery of the dioxin contamination was first reported by the Netherlands, which on January 25 issued an alert on pig fat originating from Belgium.


Because they are fat soluble, dioxins and PCBs are concentrated in the fat of animals such as pigs. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)

The dioxin was discovered in fat produced by Profat, according to statements from the two countries' food safety agencies.

The Belgian food safety agency said that between October 6 and 28, two filters at Tessenderlo Chemicals were defective, resulting in untreated hydrochloric acid being delivered to its subsidiary, PB Gelatins. PB Gelatins then supplied animal feed producers with ingredients contaminated with dioxins.

This is the second dioxin scare to hit Belgium. In 1999, about 200 farms in Belgium were ordered to destroy livestock that were given animal feeds believed to be contaminated with dioxin. The scare led to the slaughter of millions of chickens and thousands of pigs in Belgium. The Belgian food safety agency said present levels of contamination are far below the levels found in 1999.

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Markos Kyprianou said, “In setting these maximum levels, the Commission is taking another step forward in protecting the EU consumer from the harmful long-term effects of dioxin and dioxin-like PCB consumption. We will continue to pursue our comprehensive strategy against these noxious substances, continually reviewing the ways in which we can reduce human exposure to them."

Dioxins are polychlorinated aromatic compounds with similar structures, chemical and physical properties. They are formed as a by-product of chemical processes that range from natural events such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires to human activities such as the manufacturing of chemicals, pesticides, steel and paints, pulp and paper bleaching, exhaust emissions and incineration.

When chlorinated waste is burned in an uncontrolled way in an incinerator, for instance, the emissions to the air contain dioxins. Of the 210 different dioxin compounds, 17 are of toxicological concern.

PCBs are chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons which are synthesized by direct chlorinating of biphenyls. The production and use of PCBs has been discontinued in almost all industrial countries. But PCB mixtures are still widespread and present today in transformers, building materials, lubricants, coatings, plasticizers and inks. Some PCB compounds have toxicological properties that are similar to dioxins and are called dioxin-like PCBs.

The reduction of persistent chemicals such as dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in the food chain is an important part of ensuring the health and safety of EU consumers. Dioxins and PCBs have toxic properties which can provoke a series of health problems, including cancer, immune and nervous system disorders, liver damage and sterility.

The maximum levels adopted today contribute to the Commission's strategy, launched in 2001, to reduce the level of dioxins and PCBs in the environment, food and feed.

Food and feed operators have primary responsibility for ensuring that the maximum levels are complied with, while member state authorities must carry out checks and report to the Commission on their findings.

All operators in the food and feed chain must do everything necessary to limit the presence of dioxins and PCBs in the feed and food chain. This could include reviewing processing, drying and other chemical based techniques, or using decontamination techniques to remove dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs where possible.

"It is now up to national authorities to ensure that monitoring is properly carried out," Kyprianou said, "so that citizens in all member states can rely on the same level of protection against these contaminants.”

These chemicals are not soluble in water but are highly soluble in fat so they bind to sediment and organic matter in the environment and are absorbed in animal and human fatty tissue.

They are not biodegradable so they are persistent and bio-accumulate in the food chain. Once released into the environment, they pile up in the fat tissue of animals and humans, causing damage over time.


Dioxins concentrated in animal fats can show up in human food. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)

Food of animal origin contributes to 90 percent of daily intake of dioxins. Dioxin concentrates in the fatty tissues of beef and dairy cattle, poultry, pork or seafood, the Commission says. The dioxin level in food originating in farmed animals is the result of dioxin in feed. Feed contamination occurs either through inappropriate drying practices, or illegal use of PCB-oils in feed, or through environmental contamination.

The contamination of the environment by dioxins is caused by the aerial transportation and deposition of emissions from sources such as waste incineration, production of chemicals, and traffic. The use and disposal of chemicals can contribute to more severe localized contamination.

Soil is a natural sink for dioxins. Apart from atmospheric deposition, soils may be polluted by sewage sludge or composts, spills and erosion from nearby contaminated areas.

Soil is absorbed, directly or indirectly through dust deposits on vegetables, by free-range grazing cattle, goats, sheep and chicken as well as burrowing and grazing pig and wild boar.

The Commission is expected to adopt a Recommendation today which sets “action levels” and foresees “target levels” for dioxins and PCBs in feed and food.

The action levels are intended as a tool for the early warning of higher than desirable levels of dioxins in food and feed. They are set at a lower level than the maximum levels, and if the action level is exceeded, an investigation should be carried out as to the cause of the presence of dioxins.

Once identified, measures should then be taken to reduce or eliminate this cause. This should result in a further decrease of the presence of dioxins and PCBs in feed and food.

Target levels, which will be set in the future, are the levels to be ultimately achieved in order to bring human exposure below the recommended tolerable intake. Target levels will act as the driving force for further measures.

The Commission intends to further review the maximum levels by December 31, 2008, with a view to reducing them further.


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