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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of organic compounds which typically take the form of mixtures of several hundreds of compounds with the same basic structure. They develop during the incomplete combustion of organic material. PAHs are components of fossil fuels such as coal and mineral oil; they are released into the environment via exhaust gases from motor vehicles, individual firing installations and heating units.

The level of carcinogenic PAH input from the environment into the food chain is negligible as regards its potential contamination of foodstuffs. With only a few exceptions untreated food only contains little or no PAHs. The formation of these substances only takes place during food preparation, e.g. when it is barbecued, roasted, fried or baked, and during production and processing operations such as kiln-drying or drying if it is done in direct contact with an open flame or flue gases. The PAH levels in foodstuffs therefore depend essentially on the treatment of the foodstuffs, in particular on preparation and conservation processes.

For the benefit of health-related consumer protection, Commission Regulation (EC) No 208/2005, adopted on 4 February 2005, set for the first time legally binding maximum levels for benzo(a)pyrene as a marker for harmful PAHs in different foodstuffs such as food for infants and young children, smoked meat and smoked meat products. Furthermore, as a precautionary measure, maximum levels of PAH in the muscle meat of fresh fish were set as markers for a potential pollution of the sea due to ship accidents with oil spills.

On 9 June 2008, the Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) submitted an expert opinion on PAHs in foodstuffs. EFSA concluded in the expert opinion that benzo(a)pyrenes are not suitable as a marker for the presence of PAHs in foodstuffs and that a system comprising four specific PAH compounds would serve best as a possible marker for overall PAH levels in foodstuffs. EFSA proposed to set new maximum levels for the sum of the following four PAH compounds: benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene und chrysene. In addition, the present maximum level for PAH compound benzo(a)pyrene is to be maintained.

In the meantime, proof was established that while PAH can penetrate the muscle meat of fish, it is quickly decomposed. Therefore it can be stated that PAHs do not accumulate in the muscle meat of fish and that it is no longer necessary to maintain the maximum level of PAHs in fresh fish. Regulation (EC) No 208/2005 was thoroughly revised particularly in view of the new findings of EFSA and replaced by Commission Regulation (EU) No 835/2011 of 19 August 2011 amending Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 as regards maximum levels for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in foodstuffs. These maximum levels are in force since 1 September 2012.

Last update: 24.06.2015