EFSA updates advice on the risks from pyrrolizidine alkaloids by Joris Geelen

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are a large group of toxins produced by different plant species. EFSA was asked by the European Commission to deliver a scientific opinion on the risks for human health related to the presence of PAs in honey, tea, herbal infusions and food supplements.

A new exposure assessment including new occurrence data was used to update the risk characterisation. EFSA established a new Reference Point of 237 μg/kg body weight per day to assess the carcinogenic risks of PAs. It was furthermore concluded that, although no occurrence data were available, exposure to PAs from pollen, tea, herbal infusions could potentially present a risk of both acute and chronic effects in the consumer. It was also noted that consumption of food supplements based on PA-producing plants could potentially result in exposure levels causing acute/short-term toxicity. 

In Belgium a maximum level for toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids of 4 µg/kg applies for the use of 4 botanicals of the Boraginaceae family in food supplements.

EFSA sets new maximum for glutamates by Joris Geelen

Glutamic acid and its salts (E 620-625), commonly referred to as glutamates, are authorized food additives in the EU. The addition of glutamates is generally permitted up to a maximum level of 10 g/kg of food. In salt substitutes, seasonings and condiments, there is no numerical maximum permitted level for glutamates and they must be used in line with good manufacturing practices.  

EFSA re-assessed the safety of glutamates used as food additives and derived a group acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 30 mg/kg body weight per day for all six of these additives (corresponding to 2,1 g using a body weight of 70 kg). This safe level of intake is based on the highest dose at which scientists observed no adverse effects on test animals in toxicity studies.

We will keep an eye on the reactions of the European commission and Member states to see what effect this advice will have in practice. 

EFSA: Data on chemicals in food: an annual overview for the general public by Sebastian MELCHOR

Traces of chemicals are sometimes detected in food and drinks: pesticides in fruit and vegetables, veterinary drugs in meat and other animal-derived products, or environmental contaminants in various foodstuffs. Regular controls help to ensure compliance with food safety rules and standards and protect consumers from potential risks. But how high are the levels of these substances in food and do they exceed existing official limits?

A new EFSA report aims to give non-specialists a balanced view of the findings of annual EU-wide monitoring of levels of chemicals in food. The report provides context that is sometimes lacking when examples of chemicals detected in food are reported by the media. For example, EFSA’s analyses of data collected from across Europe show that exceeding official limits is the exception rather than the rule.

The European Commission’s acting Director General for Health and Food Safety, Ladislav Miko said: “This new report aimed at the European public translates complex scientific data on food in a more accessible and understandable way. I very much welcome this new way of reporting on issues that matter to people who are concerned about what's in their food and hope we will see more of this type of food information from EFSA in the future.”

Europe-wide cooperation on chemical data collection

EFSA’s Executive Director, Bernhard Url said: ”Across the European Union efforts are made at local, national and European level to collect, monitor and analyse the occurrence of chemicals in plants, animals, food and drinks. EFSA acts as an information hub for many of these activities, helping also to coordinate and harmonise them so that more and better data are available for scientific evaluation.”

These data provide the scientific basis for decision-making by national and European authorities responsible for food safety and/or public health. They also help to measure the impact of existing controls, understand if new safety assessments or control measures are needed and to set priorities for future research funding and data collection activities.

The Commission asked EFSA to include snapshots of the important work it does annually on pesticide residues in food and on veterinary drug residues in animals and animal-derived foods. In addition, the results of recent ad hoc reports covering chemical contaminants in food should be included; this first issue of the report, therefore, also summarises recent data collection work on arsenic in food and drinking water and ethyl carbamate in spirit drinks.

Mr Url added: “This report contains an overview of some of EFSA’s data work on chemicals from 2014-2015 and is the first EFSA publication to highlight this role specifically to the general public. We hope that EU citizens interested in food safety issues will find it useful and insightful.”


  • Scientific risk assessors like EFSA help to safeguard against potential adverse effects of chemicals in food, where possible, by establishing safe intake levels. This scientific advice informs decision-makers who regulate the use of chemicals in food or seek to limit their presence in the food chain. EFSA’s work would not be possible without the on-going Europe-wide data collection efforts of local, national and European organisations.
  • As well as its data collection and reporting activities on chemicals in food, EFSA produces regular reports on potential biological contaminants such as bacteria, fungi, enzymes and viruses present in the food chain.