The European Commission has brought in regulations to lower the amount of cadmium in food in the EU. This move is in line with the European cancer plan to reduce carcinogens in food launched earlier this year. The foods with a new maximum level are: foods or drinks for infants; cocoa and chocolate; many vegetables and fruits; pulses and protein from pulses; oilseeds and nuts. The changes are based on findings that suggest children are especially likely to be taking in more cadmium than is regarded as safe and so are vegetarians.
After smoking, food is the main route by which people are exposed to cadmium. A Scientific Opinion by EFSA summarises its research on exposure to cadmium and its effects. This heavy metal can cause kidney failure and is linked to increased lung, endometrium, bladder and breast cancers. It isn’t absorbed very well generally but it stays in the body a long time – the estimated half-life is 30 years. Low iron levels can increase cadmium absorption. The Opinion concluded the mean population exposure to cadmium was 2.3 micrograms per kg bodyweight per week. Some groups, notably vegetarians were likely to be consuming significantly more than that. The estimated tolerable weekly intake is 2.5 micrograms per kg bodyweight per week. EFSA therefore recommended reducing exposure to cadmium at the population level.
A report by EFSA in 2011 identified the main food groups with high levels of cadmium. These were: “algal formulations, cocoa-based products, crustaceans, edible offal, fungi, oilseeds, seaweeds and water molluscs.” When the quantity consumed was considered however, the following food groups contributed most: “grains and grain products (26.9%), vegetables and vegetable products (16.0%) and starchy roots and tubers (13.2%)”. Looking at the food categories in more detail, EFSA listed the main contributors as “potatoes (13.2%), bread and rolls (11.7%), fine bakery wares (5.1%), chocolate products (4.3%), leafy vegetables (3.9%) and water molluscs (3.2%)”.
In 2014 the Commission decided new maximum levels of cadmium based on the surveys of cadmium exposure in the diet, and set in train work to put mitigation measures in place to achieve them as well as monitoring programmes for the food affected. The Commission has now decided the measures are in place to implement the maximum levels. Foods which exceed the maximum levels may remain in the market until the end of February 2022. The regulation lists the maximum levels for many food groups. New entries on the list include chocolate/cocoa, baby foods; pulses and protein from pulses; oilseeds and nuts.
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Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain on a request from the European Commission on cadmium in food. The EFSA Journal (2009) 980, 1-139.
European Food Safety Authority; Cadmium dietary exposure in the European population. EFSA Journal 2012;10(1):2551. [37 pp.] doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2551.