Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Processing Contaminants in Food NRL

Fera is the UK National Reference Laboratory for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Processing Contaminants in food and has considerable expertise in the analysis in both food and feed.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Processing Contaminants in Food NRL

Fera is UK NRL for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Processing Contaminants in Food

Fera is the UK National Reference Laboratory for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and Processing Contaminants (PCs) in food and has considerable expertise in their analysis in both food and feed.

PAHs constitute a large class of organic compounds containing two or more fused aromatic rings made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) is commonly used as an indicator species for PAH contamination and most of the available data refer to this compound. PAHs by nature are carcinogenic, mutagenic and reproductive toxins. Long-term inhalation can cause a decrease in lung function, chest pain and irritation, while long-term skin contact can cause dermatitis and warts. BaP is thought to probably cause lung and skin cancer in humans.

There are now legally-binding restrictions on maximum limits for carcinogenic PAHs in food supplements, along with cocoa fibre, banana chips, dried herbs and dried spices. High levels of PAHs have been found in certain food supplements which contain or are derived from botanical ingredients, often associated with poor drying practices. The European Commission has published the Regulation (EU) No. 2015/1933 to update the previous EU Regulation No. 1881/2006, which came into effect 1 April 2016. This update has had a significant impact across the entire supply chain.

PCs can be formed in food or its’ ingredients when chemical changes occur during processing. Processing can include things like fermentation, smoking, drying, refining and high-temperature cooking in industry but also baking, frying, grilling or barbecuing at home.

PFCs include acrylamide, furan, MCPD, MPCD esters and glycidyl esters. Fera has carried out many research projects and surveillance exercises for these compounds. Some PCs are carcinogenic or harmful to human health. Exposure to such PCs are controlled through European and National Legislation. Fera organises training courses in PC analysis.

smoked fish

EU-RL Processing Contaminants/EU-RL-PC

The purpose of the EU-RL-PC is to provide the National Reference Laboratories (NRLs) with analytical methods for PAHs and processing contaminants, to ensure their analytical quality, disseminate relevant knowledge to the NRLs and advise to the Commission.

The National Food Institute at Technical University of Denmark (DTU Food) is the EU-RL for processing contaminants, effective from March 1, 2018.

European Legislation

The Contaminants in Food (England) Regulations 2013 make enforcement measures provision for European Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006, setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs and Regulation (EC) No 333/2007 prescribes the methods to be used for sampling and analysis for enforcement purposes. There are similar Regulations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Copies of the EU Regulations, and those of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are available from the Food Standards Agency.

Of the many hundreds of PAHs, the most studied is benzo[a]pyrene, which is often used as a marker for PAHs in ambient air and food. New maximum levels for the sum of four substances (PAH4) (benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene and chrysene) were introduced whilst maintaining a separate maximum level for benzo(a)pyrene.

European Legislation
European Legislation

PAHs can be found in most foods, and are usually formed during food preparation such as smoking, drying, roasting, baking, frying or grilling. Vegetables and some marine foods such as mussels and lobster can absorbs PAHs in many different methods, such as through growth in contaminated soil, or absorption within water after an oil spill for example.

This system ensures that PAH levels in food are kept at levels that do not cause health concerns and that the amount of PAH can also be controlled in those samples in which benzo(a)pyrene is not detectable, but where other PAHs are present.

PAHs are a large class of substances. 

The PAHs subject to restriction include: Benzo[a]pyrene , Benzo[k]fluoranthene, Anthracene, Acenaphthylene, Pyrene,  Chrysene, Benzo[ghi]perylene, Dibenzo[a,h]anthracene, Benzo[e]pyrene,  Benzo[a]anthracene, Indeno[1,2,3-cd]pyrene, Acenaphthene,  Benzo[j]fluoranthene, Phenanthrene, Benzo[b]fluoranthene, Fluorene, Fluoranthene,  Naphthalene 

EU Commission

Testimonial Background

Relevant Regulations


Commission Regulations (EC) No 2017/2158 establishes mitigation measures and benchmark levels for the reduction of the presence of acrylamide in food.

3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) and Glycidyl fatty acid esters (expressed as glycidol)

Commission Regulations (EC) No 1881/2006 and Commission Regulations (EC) No 333/2007 and their amendments, set maximum limits and lay down methods for sampling and analysis respectively.

Commission Recommendation (2014/661/EU) on the monitoring of the presence of 2 and 3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol (2 and 3-MCPD) and 3-MCPD fatty acid esters and glycidyl fatty acid esters in food.

Food Standards Agency

Information on chemical contaminants in general for industry and enforcement bodies can be foundhere.

For acrylamide specific guidance on legislation, mitigation measures and benchmark levels see here.

Directorate-General SANTE – Health and Food Safety

Directorate-General SANTE – Health and Food Safety, this Commission department is responsible for EU policy on food safety and health. The website gives more information on the work of DG SANTE, covering topics such as the RASFF system, animal feed and novel foods.

The Chemical Safety Contaminants Catalogue gives more information about mycotoxins and plant toxins, can be found here.

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