Contaminants in food: health risks of natural origin are frequently underestimated
Just under 60 percent of the German population view undesirable substances in food as a high or very high health risk. The most well-known of these substances, which are scientifically denoted as contaminants, are mercury compounds and dioxins. In contrast, only around 13 percent of respondents have heard of the natural contaminants pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in honey or tea - and only roughly one in three of those who have heard of PAs believe these substances pose a significant health risk. These are the findings of a representative study recently conducted by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) on the risk perception of contaminants in food that was published in the public health journal Bundesgesundheitsblatt - Gesundheitsforschung - Gesundheitsschutz (doi:10.1007/s00103-017-2557-2 - in German with English abstract). "People feel most at risk from synthetic substances and heavy metals", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Appropriate risk communication on contaminants should take this subjective risk perception into account."
Contaminants are undesirable substances that unintentionally find their way into food products. They can occur naturally in the environment and in the processing of raw materials into food products or can be released into the environment through human activity and thereby enter the food chain. Contaminants are undesirable because they can impair health under certain circumstances.
1,001 people were asked about contaminants in food in the representative population survey using computer-assisted telephone interviews. The most well-known contaminants in food are mercury in fish and dioxin in eggs or milk (with scores of 78% and 70%, respectively). In contrast, pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in tea or honey (13%) and arsenic in rice and rice products (26%) as relatively new consumer protection topics are only known to a minority of respondents. Only 36% and 57% of those who have heard of PAs or arsenic see these substances as posing a significant risk to health.
General attitudes towards contaminants in food and the assessment of potential health risks also differ by population group. Compared to women, for example, men see the risks of undesirable substances in barbecued meat as being lower. Men tend to spend less time in general than female respondents thinking about the issue of undesirable substances in food. Younger people feel less well informed about undesirable substances in food than their older counterparts: some 41% of 14 to 29 year-olds say they are poorly or very poorly informed about undesirable substances in food compared to 15% of those above the age of 60. And it is particularly those respondents who are relatively well informed who would like additional information on possible protective measures, legal regulations and affected product groups. When it comes to communicating health risks, the main challenge is therefore to raise awareness levels for this topic among the less well-informed population groups.
About the BfR
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientifically independent institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.
The BfR is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the institute has published a jubilee brochure (in German) which can be downloaded or ordered free of charge at http://www.bfr.bund.de/en/publication/brochures-61045.html.
This text version is a translation of the original German text which is the only legally binding version.