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Consumer tips on health and food safety

In Germany, pursuant to section 13 (5) of the Food and Feed Code (Lebensmittel- und Futtermittelgesetzbuch) (previously section 9 (4) of the Foodstuffs and Commodities Act [Lebensmittel- und Bedarfsgegenständegesetz]), the Federal Environment Ministry is the lead ministry responsible for the prevention of risks to consumers arising from foodstuffs exposed to air, soil or water contaminants (so-called environmental contaminants).

These contaminants, also referred to as “undesirable substances”, include environmental contaminants such as the heavy metals lead and mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and other organochlorine compounds. Pursuant to current law, only safe foodstuffs may be placed on the market in Germany. The responsibility for the safety of foodstuffs pertains to the Food business operators which produce, transport, store or sell such foodstuffs. The competent authorities of the Länder regularly monitor compliance with the pertinent legal provisions.

However, not all foodstuffs that are consumed are subject to official monitoring. For example, some foodstuffs which are not commercially placed on the market, such as fruits and vegetables from private gardens, privately picked mushrooms or privately caught wild freshwater fish. In any case, everybody can further reduce their individual intake of undesirable substances through foodstuffs.

The following tips aim to help consumers to do this:

Only eat wild mushrooms occasionally

mushroom on moss

The cadmium, mercury and even radionuclide content of wild mushrooms may be considerably higher than in other plant-based foods. This does not apply to cultivated mushrooms, for example button mushrooms. People who eat wild mushrooms regularly should not consume more than 200-250 grams per week. Children should eat even less, proportional to their body weight. If only eaten every once in a while, even larger portions do not present a risk.

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If pregnant or breastfeeding choose fish with comparatively low mercury content

Fish contains important nutrients and should therefore be a standard component of our diet. However, fish may contain varying levels of mercury, depending on the pollution of the water body and on the age and species of the fish. Mercury levels in predatory fish are generally higher than in non-predatory fish. EU legislation prescribes maximum levels of mercury for fish and fisheries products. As long as these maximum levels, which are monitored by the food surveillance authorities of the Länder, are not exceeded, health risks for the general population with typical consumption patterns are very unlikely. Nevertheless, pregnant or breastfeeding women, or rather their foetuses and new-born babies, are a group especially at risk from the toxic effects of mercury. Pregnant or breastfeeding women are therefore advised to mainly consume fish of species with generally lower mercury levels and to avoid the following species (and products thereof) that potentially show higher contents of mercury: shark (sold as strips of smoked dogfish), escolar, eel, wolf eel, swordfish, halibut, pike, monkfish and tuna.

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Follow regional advice on consumption of privately caught freshwater fish

In particular stable compounds such as dioxins and PCBs have been accumulating in river beds for years. Wild freshwater fish may therefore still ingest considerable amounts of harmful substances such as dioxins and PCBs through the food chain. This is the reason why today's much reduced input of dioxins and PCBs into the environment has not yet led to correspondingly lower levels of contaminants in fish. Due to their longevity and high liposolubility, dioxins and PCBs accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish. Eels, in particular, contain a lot of fat. Dioxin and PCB levels exceeding the maximum legal levels are rather often found in freshwater fish. Anglers and their families should therefore check with the competent Länder authorities the contamination level of fish in the respective river reaches.

More information:

Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR): "Contamination of wild freshwater fish with dioxins and PCBs", Updated BfR Opinion No 027/2010, 16 June 2010 (PDF, 118 KB)

BfR: "Criteria for dietary recommendations for freshwater fish contaminated with dioxins and PCBs", BfR Opinion No 005/2010, 12 October 2009 (PDF, 52 KB)

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Only eat offal occasionally

Contrary to the offal of many farm animals, which is increasingly showing reduced levels of heavy metals, the offal of wild animals such as rabbit, deer and boar may contain considerable levels of heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs. As a general rule, offal of any wild animal should be consumed only occasionally, i.e. not more than every two to three weeks.

Exceptions:

Only eat cod liver in oil at most every two months

Studies have shown that canned cod liver in oil often contains high levels of dioxins and PCBs. At the beginning of July 2008, an EU-wide maximum level (limit value) of 25 picograms per gram wet weight in total was introduced for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in fish liver and its products. This limit value was replaced in January 2012 by a maximum content of 20 pictograms per gram wet weight, also in total, for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs. However, even this lower maximum content does not ensure consumer health protection in cases of regular consumption of cod liver in oil, since at current exposure levels an exceedance of the tolerable intake for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs cannot be ruled out. Therefore the consumption of cod liver in oil (usual size of a portion of 150g) should be restricted for preventive health protection reasons to a maximum of every two months.

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As a measure of preventive health care avoid consumption of sheep liver

The term sheep liver in this context refers to livers of lamb and sheep. To date, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has collected 140 measuring results of sheep liver samples from 6 different federal Länder. In most of the samples, dioxin and dioxin-like PCB levels are very high, the majority of them exceeding EU maximum levels. The BfR therefore recommends refraining from the consumption of sheep liver.

Additional information:

Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR): “New EU maximum levels for dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non-dioxin-like PCBs in livers of terrestrial animals and in sheep liver.", BfR opinion No 014/2014, 11 March 2014 (108 KB)

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Last update: 20.10.2016