Various chemical compounds are part of our everyday life through, for example, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, detergents, traffic, and also foods. Some of the chemical compounds of foods are essential to people (e.g. nutrients) and some have positive effects (e.g. additives improving the preservability of foods), while some chemical compounds occurring in foods are harmful as such (e.g. heavy metals). Some chemical compounds found in foods can have adverse health effects in high concentrations, i.e., they can be considered to be chemical hazards of foods.
Chemical hazards can occur in foods unintentionally, such as toxic compounds that occur naturally in plants or contaminants originating from the environment. Efforts are taken to prevent and/or minimise the occurrence of these compounds in foods as effectively as possible, by e.g. processing plants to remove harmful compounds (e.g. hot water blanching or boiling), adopting good agro-technical practices or changing the production conditions of foods.
This group includes, for example:
- harmful substances occurring naturally in foods (e.g. gyromitrin in false morel or glycoalkaloids in potato),
- harmful substances originating from the environment (e.g. heavy metals, dioxin or PCB compounds),
- mould toxins, aka mycotoxins (e.g. aflatoxin or Fusarium toxins),
- contaminants produced in the manufacture of food (e.g. PAH compounds or acrylamide),
- radioactive substances.
Some chemical compounds are used intentionally in the food production chain due to, for example, some technical effect that they have (additives) or an important role that they play in plant production (plant protection products). When used correctly and in compliance with regulations, these compounds are not harmful to health, however. If regulations are not complied with, also these compounds can in high concentrations cause a risk to the chemical safety of the food. This group includes, for example:
- food treatment agents (such as additives and flavourings) when used contrary to regulations,
- nutrients added in foods when used contrary to regulations,
- residues of plant protection products, if plant protections products have been used contrary to regulations,
- residues of veterinary medicinal products, if veterinary medicinal products have been used contrary to regulations,
- unauthorised substances used in the production of packaging and food contact materials and/or use of materials under wrong conditions.
In some cases, hazards can result from the consumer being misled through e.g. inadequate/incorrect labelling. Such cases may include, for example:
- ingredients not indicated in labelling (e.g. medicinal products in food supplements),
- allergens not indicated in labelling.
Risk management related to the chemical safety of food is based on scientific research. The use of additives or plant protection products, for example, is strictly regulated in the EU and maximum levels, purity criteria or maximum permissible consumption levels have been set for some compounds. As far as contaminants and toxins occurring naturally in plants are concerned, the key method for risk management is to set maximum levels in legislation. The assessment of the chemical risk is for food products based on exposure calculations to determine the probable qualitative and quantitative intake of the compounds based on concentration data and food consumption data. The chemical risk is in most cases determined to be low based on exposure calculations. However, the intake of some chemical compounds may be higher than normal for some sensitive consumer groups, such as small children. The reason for this is the high energy needs of children, which means their consumption of food (per kg of body weight) is usually higher than that of adults.
Legislative efforts have been taken, however, to ensure that food is safe to all consumers – every day, throughout their life cycle. Food business operators, including operators in primary food production, are responsible for ensuring through in-house control the compliance of the food with requirements also in terms of chemical risks. Regulatory control verifies the implementation of in-house control using a risk-based approach and random testing. The best way the consumer can ensure the chemical safety of food is to eat a balanced, varied and moderate diet – taking into account, where appropriate, the instructions provided for safe use of foods.