Cadmium: New challenge for food safety?

Cadmium is not wanted in food as it can damage health. In January 2009 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established a new guidance value for the lifelong tolerable weekly intake of the heavy metal. The new value of 2.5 µg per kilogram body weight is far lower than the previous value of 7 µg that was provisionally derived by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In an EU-wide estimate, EFSA established that consumers on a conventional diet are just below the new tolerable intake. In certain regions and groups in the population cadmium intake is, however, higher. In particular consumers who eat large amounts of cereals and vegetables may exceed this value. At the status seminar “Cadmium - New challenges for food safety?” staged by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), experts from various disciplines discussed the relevance of the heavy metal for food safety with representatives from science, political circles, the food and feed industry and consumer associations. They traced the path of cadmium along the entire food chain: from soil and fertiliser in plants processed into food or feed and then via the food to man. “We believe that efforts are needed on all levels to reduce both the input of cadmium into the food chain and consumer exposure,” said BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. “Even if consumers are not at risk from the present dietary cadmium levels, this substance is still unwanted in food. Hence, the input sources must be blocked.”

Cadmium is a heavy metal found in the environment. It comes in part from nature, i.e. from decayed rocks or volcanic eruptions. Furthermore, it has also reached soil and water body sediments over a period of many years from mining, industrial or agricultural sources. Moreover, cadmium spreads via air in the environment. The concentrations vary from region to region. Cadmium can accumulate in plants and animals and is absorbed by humans from various foods. The heavy metal leads to kidney damage if large amounts are ingested over longer periods. It has also been classified as a human carcinogen.

The foods with the highest cadmium levels are innards, seafood, wild mushrooms and oilseeds. By contrast, meat, eggs and milk have relatively low levels. This is confirmed by the comprehensive food monitoring data of the federal government and federal states.  Aside from this, eating habits play a decisive role in cadmium intake. Based on the most recent data from the National Food Consumption Study II of the Max Rubner Institute, experts have estimated the cadmium intake of the German population. According to this, consumers with an average consumption of all foods use up almost 58% of the tolerable weekly intake established by EFSA. Some groups like adolescents and consumers with special eating habits (for instance high consumption of vegetables and cereals) have a higher intake. These so-called heavy consumers use up 94% of the tolerable intake through food consumption.  

Nonetheless, experts do not advise heavy consumers to make major changes to their eating habits. After all, no one disputes the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables: preventive effect for certain types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. Against this backdrop the participants in the status seminar discussed ways of reducing cadmium levels in food, for instance by using low cadmium fertiliser and the cultivation of types of plants that accumulate less cadmium. Given the widespread natural occurrence of cadmium in the soil and the inputs by mining and industry spanning several years, reduction strategies can only be successful in the long term. In the opinion of the participants, this challenge must be taken up jointly by all the stakeholders from environmental protection, food safety, agriculture and food production across Europe.

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