Chemicals in food

The safety of our food is determined in part by the presence of chemicals, some of which may not be permitted in foods. RIVM contributes to chemical food safety by supporting governments with risk assessment, consultancy, methodology development and more.

Chemicals can end up in our food in various ways:

  • Some substances may be used during production, transport, or storage of food products. This includes pesticides, preservatives and colouring agents, veterinary drugs and substances in packaging materials. 
  • Sometimes chemicals are used illegally in the food production process. 
  • Some substances may occur naturally in the basic ingredients used in a food product, or in the food itself. Examples include heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, which are present in the soil. Or mycotoxins, a group of toxins that are produced by fungi.
  • Some substances are produced during the course of food production or preparation. For instance, acrylamide is produced when baking starchy foods at high temperatures, while polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are released when cooking meat on a barbecue.

Health effects are rare

When undesirable chemicals end up in food, they could cause health effects, such as allergic reactions and/or adverse effects on organs or physiology (toxic effects). The risk of health effects from most chemicals is negligible, since the amounts permitted in food in the Netherlands are low. This is for the most part due to the laws and regulations in the Netherlands and in Europe. Allergic reactions may occur in people who are particularly sensitive to certain substances (allergens). That is why laws and regulations prescribe that the label should indicate which potential allergens are present in a food product. Examples of toxic effects include gastrointestinal symptoms, kidney damage, liver disease, impairment of the nervous system, or DNA damage, which could cause cancer. Some toxic effects are transient, but the effect may sometimes be permanent.

Exceeding the threshold limits

If there are excessive concentrations of chemicals in our food, it is usually an incident or a temporary threshold violation. Instances of non-compliance with the standard limits are published by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Authority. A minor violation of the standard limits does not necessarily mean that there is a risk for health effects, because the standards incorporate safety margins.

However, some chemicals may have such a significant impact that it is impossible to rule out that any exposure might still cause health effects. In such cases, it is difficult to assess the exact health effects, since they usually do not occur right away, but develop gradually over time or after long-term exposure. This could be because these substances accumulate in the body, or because effects such as organ damage or cancer only become noticeable over time. As a result, it is important to keep a close eye on exposure to these substances and what effects they might have.

What does RIVM do?

To maintain high food safety standards in the Netherlands, RIVM supports the government by conducting risk assessments, providing policy recommendations and developing methodologies and models that are required to make its other activities possible. In the Netherlands, RIVM works in close collaboration with various government ministries, the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Authority (NVWA), Research institute RIKILIT Wageningen University, the Dutch Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides (Ctgb) and the Netherlands Nutrition Centre. At the international level, RIVM works in close collaboration with its European sister institutes, the European Food Safety Authority, the European Commission, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organisation.

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