EU regulations on food contaminants – how to ensure compliance?

Published June 5, 2023

EU food contaminant legislation sets maximum allowable levels for various impurities in food products. To guarantee product safety, these levels are set to be “as low as reasonably achievable” by following good agricultural and manufacturing practices.

High-risk items susceptible to specific types of pollutants should be tested to ensure that maximum limits are not exceeded. At Measurlabs, we offer testing options for all the contaminants listed in this article.

Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 replaces Commission Regulation (EC) 1881/2006

Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 on setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs was replaced by Regulation (EU) 2023/915 in the spring of 20231. Prior to this, the original regulation had been amended close to 50 times by additions and revisions to the list of contaminants, maximum levels, and food categories. With even more amendments pending, the Commission decided to replace (EC) 1881/2006 instead.

Like its predecessor, the new Regulation (EU) 2023/915 addresses dozens of impurities from plant alkaloids and heavy metals to dioxins and PCBs. Similarly, all future amendments will be integrated into the consolidated version of the document. The following sections provide a summary of the requirements imposed by the regulation on selected food contaminants.

Aflatoxin

Produced by two species of Aspergillus fungus, aflatoxins are harmful mycotoxins that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers to be carcinogenic and genotoxic2. Aflatoxins were included in the original Regulation (EC) 1881/2006, with subsequent amendments to maximum levels and regulated foodstuffs introduced by regulations (EU) 165/2010 and (EU) 1058/2012. Maximum concentrations are set for aflatoxin B1, aflatoxin M1, and the sum of aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, and G2.

Table 1: Maximum aflatoxin levels in selected foods

Food product

Max. level of aflatoxin B1 (μg/kg)

Max. sum of aflatoxins B1, B2, G1, and G2 (μg/kg)

Max. level of aflatoxin M1 (μg/kg)

Almonds, pistachios, and apricot kernels

8.0–12.0*

10.0–15.0*

-

Hazelnuts and Brazil nuts

5.0–8.0*

10.0–15.0*

-

Other tree nuts

2.0–5.0*

4.0–10.0*

-

Groundnuts (peanuts) and other oilseeds

2.0–8.0*

4.0–15.0*

Dried figs

6.0

10.0

-

Other dried fruit

2.0–5.0*

4.0–10.0*

-

Most cereals and cereal products

2.0

4.0

-

Raw and heat-treated milk

-

-

0.05

Dried chili, cayenne pepper, paprika, white and black pepper, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and mixes containing them

5.0

10.0

-

Cereal-based foods for infants and young children

0.10

-

-

Infant formula and follow-on milk

-

-

0.025

* The lower limit applies to products intended for direct human consumption or use as food ingredients, while the higher limit applies to products subjected to sorting or other physical treatment before use.

Ochratoxin A

Another mycotoxin, produced by Aspergillus and Penicillium fungi, ochratoxin A often forms during the storage and drying of crops if best practices are not followed. Following findings that ochratoxin A can be found in previously unregulated products and that exposure is more harmful than previously thought, new maximum levels were set by Regulation (EU) 2022/1370. These levels have been effective since the beginning of 2023.

Table 2: Maximum levels of ochratoxin A in selected foods

Food product

Maximum level of ochratoxin A (μg/kg)

Dried currants, raisins, sultanas, and figs

8.0

Other dried fruit

2.0

Roasted coffee

3.0

Instant coffee

5.0

Cocoa powder

3.0

Wine and grape juice

2.0

Bakery products, cereal snacks, and breakfast cereals 

2.0–4.0*

Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, melon seeds, hemp seeds, soybeans, and pistachios

5.0

Dried chili, cayenne pepper, and paprika

20.0

Other dried spices

15.0

Dried herbs

10.0

Licorice confectionery with ≥ 97% licorice extract content

50.0

Other licorice confectionery

10.0

Cereal-based foods for infants and young children

0.5

* The higher limit applies to products containing oilseeds, nuts, or dried fruit.

Deoxynivalenol, zearalenone, and fumonisins

Deoxynivalenol (DON), zearalenone, and fumonisins are toxins produced by Fusarium fungi. They are often found in cereal products, with zearalenone and fumonisins being especially prevalent in maize and products derived from it. The current maximum levels were introduced into EU legislation by Regulation (EC) 1126/2007.

Table 3: Maximum deoxynivalenol, zearalenone, and fumonisin levels in selected food products

Product

Deoxynivalenol (μg/kg)

Zearalenone

(μg/kg)

Sum of fumonisins B1 and B2 (μg/kg)

Unprocessed maize*

1,750

350

4,000

Unprocessed durum wheat and oats

1,750

100

-

Other unprocessed cereals

1,250

100

-

Maize-based breakfast cereals and cereal snacks

500

100

800

Other maize-based products for direct human consumption

750

100

1,000

Other bread, pastries, biscuits, cereal snacks, and breakfast cereals

500

50

-

Cereal flour, bran, and semolina for direct human consumption

750

75

-

Dry pasta

750

-

-

Maize-based foods for young children

200

20

200

Other cereal-based foods for young children

200

20

-

* Other than maize intended for wet milling

Citrinin

Citrinin is a mycotoxin that may form in foods and food supplements fermented with red yeast Monascus purpureus. High levels of citrinin have been discovered in red yeast rice supplements, which are currently the only product category for which a maximum limit has been set in EU legislation. The citrinin content of such supplements must not exceed 100 μg/kg.

Heavy metals

Regulation (EU) 2023/915 sets maximum levels for lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic in a wide range of foods. Lead and cadmium levels have most recently been updated in 2021, mercury levels in 2022, and arsenic levels in 2023. Heavy metal content is measured in milligrams per kilogram of the product’s wet weight. 

The maximum allowed lead content ranges from 0.01 mg/kg in some baby foods to 3 mg/kg in food supplements. Most meat products, fats, and oils should not contain more than 0.1 mg/kg of lead, while the limits for fruit, vegetables, and fungi vary between 0.1 mg/kg and 0.8 mg/kg.

For cadmium, maximum levels range from 0.005 mg/kg in milk protein-based baby foods to 3 mg/kg in supplements. Fruit, vegetables, and fungi must not contain more than 0.02–0.5 mg/kg of cadmium, and the limits for most meat and fish products vary from 0.05 to 0.15 mg/kg.

Maximum mercury levels are set for salt, food supplements, fish, and fishery products. Salt and supplements must not contain more than 0.1 mg/kg of mercury. For fish and fishery products, the limit depends on the species and ranges from 0.3 to 1 mg/kg.

Products that should be tested for arsenic mostly comprise rice-based products, in addition to which baby foods, fruit juices, and salt require testing. The maximum allowed arsenic content in regulated products ranges from 0.01 to 0.5 mg/kg.

Ergot alkaloids and ergot sclerotia

Ergot sclerotia are fungal structures from the species Claviceps that may replace grain kernels and grass seeds, showing up as larger discolored granules on grain ears. The alkaloids they contain are toxic, and EFSA’s scientific opinion from June 2012 has defined the tolerable daily intake of ergot alkaloids as 0.6 μg/kg per body weight3

The current maximum levels in different foodstuffs were set by Regulation (EU) 2021/1399 and took effect at the beginning of 2022. Ergot alkaloid levels are measured as the lower-bound sum of 12 alkaloids: ergocornine/ergocorninine, ergocristine/ergocristinine, ergocryptine/ergocryptinine (α- and β-form), ergometrine/ergometrinine, ergosine/ergosinine, and ergotamine/ergotaminine.

Table 3: Maximum levels of ergot alkaloids in selected foods

Food product

Sum of ergot alkaloids (μg/kg)

Rye products

500 (250 from 1.7.2024)

Wheat gluten

400

Barley, wheat, spelt, and oat products with low ash content (<900mg/100g)

100 (50 from 1.7.2024)

Barley, wheat, spelt, and oat products with high ash content (≥900mg/100g)

150

Cereal-based foods for infants and young children

20

Tropane alkaloids

Maximum tropane alkaloid levels in products intended for young children were introduced into EU food contaminant legislation by Regulation (EU) 2016/239, following EFSA’s scientific opinion on the high likelihood of toddlers being exposed to unsafe amounts4. The legislation was further amended by Regulation (EU) 2021/1408, which introduced maximum limits for other foodstuffs. These limits have been effective since September 2022. Tropane alkaloid content is measured as atropine, scopolamine, and their sum.

Table 4: Maximum levels of tropane alkaloids in selected foods

Food product

Sum of atropine and scopolamine (μg/kg)

Atropine (μg/kg)

Scopolamine (μg/kg)

Cereal-based foods for infants and young children

-

1.0

1.0

Millet, sorghum, and maize, including popcorn

5.0*

-

-

Buckwheat

10.0

-

-

Dried anise seed infusions

50.0

-

-

Other dried herbal infusions

25.0

-

-

Liquid herbal infusions

0.2

-

-

* A higher limit of 15 μg/kg applies to unprocessed maize

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids

EFSA published a scientific assessment on pyrrolizidine alkaloids in 2017, finding that the risk of excessive exposure is high for frequent consumers of tea and herbal infusions5. Following EFSA’s assessment, maximum levels for pyrrolizidine alkaloids were introduced into EU legislation by Regulation (EU) 2020/2040, becoming effective in July 2022. Pyrrolizidine content is measured as a sum of over 30 individual pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

Table 5: Maximum levels of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in selected foods

Food product

Maximum pyrrolizidine content (μg/kg)

Herbal infusions composed exclusively of rooibos, anise, lemon balm, chamomile, thyme, peppermint, lemon verbena, and their mixtures

400

Other herbal infusions

200

Tea and flavored tea

150

Tea and infusions intended for young children

75

Pollen-based food supplements

500

Other food supplements

400

Dried borage, lovage, marjoram, and oregano

1,000

Other dried herbs

400

Cumin seeds

400

Dioxins and PCBs

Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are highly toxic persistent organic pollutants (POP). The EU legislation on their presence in food has been updated several times, most recently in 2022 by Regulation (EU) 2022/2002, which takes into account EFSA’s updated scientific opinion on maximum tolerable intake6. The new regulation extends limits to additional food groups and lowers the limits for other foods.

Maximum dioxin and PCB levels are expressed as sums of compounds considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the most toxic. These include 7 dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), 10 dibenzofurans (PCDFs), 4 dioxin-like non-ortho PCBs, and 8 dioxin-like mono-ortho PCBs. The WHO-TEF values (WHO-toxic equivalency factors) for compound groups reflect the maximum acceptable exposure.

Table 6: Maximum dioxin and PCB concentrations in selected foods

Food product

Sum of dioxins (PCDDs + PCDFs)

Sum of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs (PCDDs + PCDFs + PCBs)

Sum of PCB28, PCB52, PCB101, PCB138, PCB153, and PCB180 (non dioxin-like PCBs)

Poultry

1.75 pg/g of fat

3.0 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Pork

1.0 pg/g of fat

1.25 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Beef, lamb, and goat meat

2.5 pg/g of fat

4.0 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Most fish and fishery products*

3.5 pg/g of wet weight

6.5 pg/g of wet weight

75 ng/g of wet weight

Raw milk and dairy products

2.0 pg/g of fat

4.0 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Eggs

2.5 pg/g of fat

5.0 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Vegetable oils

0.75 pg/g of fat

1.25 pg/g of fat

40 ng/g of fat

Foods for infants and young children

0.1 pg/g of wet weight

0.2 pg/g of wet weight

1.0 ng/g of wet weight

* Higher limits apply to wild-caught freshwater fish, with specific levels depending on the species.

PFAS and PAH compounds

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are some of the most recent additions to EU food contaminant legislation. Maximum levels were introduced by Regulation (EU) 2022/2388, taking effect at the beginning of 2023. More information can be found in our article on PFAS testing.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are addressed by several European food contaminant regulations, including (EU) 835/2011, (EU) 2015/1933, and (EU) 2015/1125. More information can be found in a separate article on PAH analysis, summarizing maximum PAH concentrations in food, drinking water, and consumer products.

Regulation (EU) 2017/2158 on acrylamide

Acrylamide is a potentially carcinogenic chemical that forms in starchy foods during cooking in high temperatures. While it is currently not included in Regulation (EU) 2023/915, Regulation (EU) 2017/2158 sets benchmark levels for acrylamide in selected foods. These are used to evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation measures aimed at minimizing acrylamide content.

Table 7: Benchmark levels for acrylamide in selected foods

Food product

Benchmark level of acrylamide (μg/kg)

Ready-to-eat french fries

500

Potato crisps and potato-based crackers

750

Other crackers

400

Wheat-based bread

50

Other soft bread

100

Wheat and rye-based cereals, bran, and whole grain cereals

300

Biscuits, wafers, and crispbread

350

Gingerbread

800

Roasted coffee

400

Instant coffee

850

Biscuits for young children

150

Other cereal-based foods for young children

40

Regulation (EC) 396/2005 on pesticide residues

Regulation (EC) 396/2005 limits the maximum levels of pesticide residues in food and feed of plant and animal origin. The consolidated version of the document contains all the amendments, of which there are more than 2007. As there are hundreds of pesticides and food categories that Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) apply to, it is impossible to summarize them here. Instead, the EU Pesticides Database can be used to check which residue limits apply to any given product group.

Food contaminant analysis by EU regulations

Food contaminant analysis can be performed using several analytical methods, such as HPLC, GC-MS/MS, and ICP-MS. The choice of the most appropriate testing method depends on the screened contaminants, sample characteristics, and the required detection limit. For example, pesticide residue screening is performed using the GC-MS/MS and LC-MS/MS methods, which allow for a very low, 3–10 ppb (parts-per-billion) detection limit.

Measurlabs provides a comprehensive selection of accredited food contaminant testing services. Many analyses can be purchased online under the food, feed, and supplement testing category on our webshop. You can also request a quote using the form below or at info@measurlabs.com.

References: 

1 Regulation (EU) 2023/915 on EUR-Lex

2 EFSA on aflatoxins

3 EFSA on ergot alkaloids

4 EFSA on tropane alkaloids

5 EFSA on pyrrolizidine alkaloids

6 EFSA on dioxins and PCBs

7 Consolidated version of Commission Regulation (EC) No 396/2005 on EUR-Lex, incorporating all amendments passed before May 2023

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