Contaminants can be of natural or man-made origin. Examples of contaminants are dioxins, PCBs, mycotoxins and heavy metals.

Unlike pesticides and veterinary drugs, the presence of contaminants in food products is not always avoidable. Maximum levels for contaminants in food are usually set out of food safety concerns and are in most cases As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA).

A lot of countries do have MLs for some contaminants, like for heavy metals and mycotoxins (like aflatoxins) in specified foodstuffs. Other countries refer to the MLs for contaminants that were established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

When searching for ML legislation per country on the internet it became apparent that some countries or communities prefer to establish horizontal legislation on contaminants (like the European Union, almost all MLs set for contaminants in specified foodstuffs can be found in one EU Regulation) while others prefer vertical legislation. The latter meaning that MLs are mentioned in Food Standards for specific foodstuffs.

Regional MRLs and legislation for contaminants

In the section below, you will be able to find links to information on regional MRL setting or legislation. The list will be extended in course of time.

MLs for certain contaminants in foodstuffs in the EU

For certain substances, man-made and natural, maximum levels (ML) are set in certain foodstuffs. The basic principles used in setting these levels are set by Council Regulation (EEC) No 315/93. The scientific panel on contaminants in the food chain (CONTAM) of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advises the EU on levels to be set. Their opinions on specific contaminants can be found at the EFSA website.

Commission Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 contains in the annexes the MLs in the EU  for:

  • nitrate
  • mycotoxins (aflatoxins, ochratoxin A, patulin, deoxynivalenol, zearalenone, fumonisins, T2 and HT-2-toxin)
  • metals (cadmium, lead, mercury and inorganic tin)
  • dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs and non-dioxin-like PCBs
  • 3-MCPD
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, crysene and  benzo (a)pyrene).
  • melamine

Commission Regulation (EC) No 124/2009 contains MLs for residues of some feed additives in non target animal tissues. Residues that may result from carry over of feed additives from target animal feeds to non-target animal feeds during feed production.

The MLs apply to the food products mentioned in the regulation. For mercury for example, MLs are only set for fishery products. For other products, like vegetables, there are no mercury MLs. For substance-product combinations not mentioned in Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 applies that prohibits the placing on the EU market of unsafe food.

Other MLs for chemicals in EU legislation

For some natural and man-made chemicals EU maximum levels are mentioned in legislative texts other than Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 and Regulation (EC) No 124/2009. Examples of these substances and the legislative texts in which MLs are mentioned are:

  • marine biotoxins (PSP, ASP, akadaic acid, dinophysistoxins and pectenotoxins, yessotoxins, and azaspiracids) – Regulation (EC) No 853/2004
  • erucic acid – Directive 76/621/EEC
  • residues of extraction solvents – Directive 2009/32/EC

Other MLs in legislation of member states of the EU

Note that member states of the EU may have additional MLs in their national legislation for substances other than mentioned above.

EU Regulations and Directives can be found as pdf-files at the Eur-lex website. To obtain the consolidated versions (in which amendments are included) click on ‘simple search’ then on ‘consolidated text’, and enter the year (xxxx) and the number of the Regulation respectively the Directive. To obtain the original documents you should search using ‘natural number’, make sure then that you also search for potential amendments.