Contaminants

We carry out enforcement and monitoring to protect people from chemicals that might transfer onto food from materials they’ve been in contact with – packaging and utensils, for example.

For how we monitor radiological contaminants, see pages here and here on food.gov.uk.

Our approach to specific chemicals:

Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical compound that typically forms in starchy foods when they are baked, fried or roasted at high-temperatures (120-150°C). When the sugar and amino acid naturally present in starchy food are heated, they combine to form substances giving new avours and aromas. This also causes the browning of the food and produces acrylamide. For further information visit the European Food Safety Authority website.  

Dioxins and PCBs

Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) are chemicals that get into our food from the environment.

Dioxins and PCBs have no immediate effect on our health but can cause problems if they are absorbed into our bodies at high levels for long periods. Foods high in animal fat, such as milk, meat, fish and eggs (and foods produced with them) are the main source of dioxins and PCBs although all foods contains at least low levels of these chemicals. The levels of dioxins and PCBs in any one individual's diet will vary depending on the amounts and types of foods they eat.

The risk to health comes from eating food with high levels of dioxins and PCBs over a long period. They have been shown to cause a wide range of effects in certain animals, including cancer and damage to the immune and reproductive systems, although it appears that people may be less sensitive.

Where do dioxins and PCBs come from?

Dioxins have never been produced intentionally. They may be formed as unwanted by-products in a variety of industrial and combustion processes, including household fires. Most industrial releases of dioxins are strictly controlled under pollution prevention and control regulations.

PCBs have been used since the early 1930s, mainly in electrical equipment. The manufacture and general use of PCBs stopped in the 1970s and is no longer permitted in the UK. The only PCBs remaining in use in the UK are sealed inside some older electrical equipment.

Dioxins and PCBs from these sources may be released in small quantities into the air, water or land. Animals and fish then take them up from their food and any soil and sediment they take in while they are feeding. The chemicals are absorbed into their body fat, where they accumulate.
 

Can I avoid eating food containing dioxins or PCBs?

Because dioxins and PCBs are found at low levels in all foods, including foods that are important sources of nutrients, the Agency's advice is that the benefits of a healthy diet outweigh any risks from dioxins and PCBs.

There is very little scope for removal of dioxins and PCBs from foods once they have entered the food chain. It is generally agreed that the best method of preventing dioxins and PCBs from entering the food chain is to control releases of these chemicals to the environment. The amount of dioxins and PCBs taken in by people in their food in the UK are similar to those in the rest of the European Union and USA. Intakes are falling and have reduced by 85% since 1982.
 

Is there a limit for the amount of dioxins in food?

In July 2002, limits were set by the European Commission for dioxins in foods that contribute significantly to the total dietary intake of these chemicals. These foods include meat, liver, fish, eggs, milk and milk products.

Mycotoxins

Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxic chemicals produced by certain moulds and changes in weather patterns due to climate change are altering the prevalence of such toxins in food crops.

On 15 December 2015 Food Standards Scotland held a workshop on Mycotoxins, Climate Change and Food Safety attended by researchers and industry representatives.

Pesticides

What do pesticides do?

Pesticides are substances that are used to kill or control pests. They are mainly used in farming to protect food crops.Different pesticides are used for different reasons. For example, pesticides can:

  • prevent disease in crops
  • kill pests such as rats, mice and insects
  • control weeds
  • prevent mould from growing on crops while they are stored

By protecting crops, pesticides help to provide a plentiful supply of food all the year round. If pesticides were not used, this could affect the availability and prices of food.
 

Are there any pesticides left in food when I eat it?

Sometimes traces of pesticides can be left in food, or on the outside of food. These are called pesticide residues. There are strict limits on the levels of pesticide residues that are allowed to be in food. Washing or peeling fruit and veg can remove some pesticide residues.

Are pesticide residues monitored?

Yes, there is a national monitoring programme overseen by the Pesticide Residues Committee (PRC), which is an independent committee of experts. This programme measures the levels of pesticide residues in many types of food, including fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy products, baby food and processed foods, to check that residues are within legal and safe limits. These limits apply to food produced in the UK and imported food.

Who controls how pesticides are used?

There are a number of different organisations involved in regulating what pesticides can be used and how. These are:
Pesticides Safety Directorate – the UK regulator responsible for agricultural and garden pesticides

  • Advisory Committee on Pesticides – advises on the control of pests and approval of pesticides
  • Chemical Regulation Directorate – advises on the official monitoring programme for pesticide residues in food and drink
  • Food Standards Agency – an independent Government department set up to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food
  • Health and Safety Executive – the UK regulator responsible for non-agricultural pesticides, including fly and wasp killers (insecticides) and rat and mouse killers (rodenticides)

Are there pesticides in baby foods?

Baby foods very rarely contain any pesticide residues. Under European law, there are strict limits on the levels of pesticides allowed in infant formula and manufactured baby foods, and manufacturers take stringent precautions to make sure that pesticide residues in baby foods are kept to a minimum. Infant formula and manufactured baby foods are monitored as part of the official pesticide residues monitoring programme overseen by the Pesticide Residues Committee. Pesticide residues have occasionally been found in baby foods, but these have been at very low levels that wouldn’t be a significant risk to a baby’s health.

Are pesticides used on organic food?

Most organic food is produced without using pesticides because organic methods avoid using them. There are strict standards on what farmers are allowed to do when producing food that will be sold as ‘organic’. Farmers are allowed to use a very limited range of pesticides on organic crops, but this is as a last resort and only on some types of crops.

Do pesticides affect the environment?

Pesticides can present risks to the environment, for example to insects, birds, fish and creatures living in soil. Before pesticides are approved for use, these risks are considered by experts on environmental impact, who sit on committees that advise on whether the risks are acceptable. The Government has a long-standing policy of minimising the use of pesticides and encouraging farmers and others to use pesticides in ways that will have the least negative impact.                          

Phthalates

Phthalates is the name for a group of chemicals that have a variety of industrial uses and are found in a wide range of household and consumer goods. In food packaging, phthalate use is limited mainly to making materials such as adhesives and some printing inks. Phthalates take a long time to degrade, or break down, in the environment. This means that they may be found at low levels in some foods. Phthalates are used as a medium to carry other substances that perfume cosmetics. They are present in children's toys, intravenous blood bags and other medical equipment, some paints and vinyl flooring.     .

What they mean for your health

In recent years, there has been some concern that phthalates may have a harmful effect on human reproductive development, because they have been reported to be endocrine disrupters. Endocrine disrupters are substances that can interact with hormone systems. Particular concern has focused on the sex hormones – the female oestrogens and male androgens – because of their important roles in the development of the reproductive system. Although there is evidence that some wildlife species have been affected by exposure to endocrine disrupters, there is still no conclusive evidence of a link between harmful effects on human reproductive health and exposure to these chemicals. In animal studies, phthalates have been found to affect the liver, but this is not thought to be a risk for humans at the levels of phthalates that we might consume in food.

Are phthalates avoidable?

It would be difficult to avoid them. Phthalates have been widely used for over 50 years and are found throughout developed communities around the world and in the environment.                                           

Sudan dyes

Sudan dyes are red dyes that are used for colouring solvents, oils, waxes, petrol, and shoe and floor polishes. They are not allowed to be added to food in the UK and the rest of the European Union. However, Sudan dyes have been found in a large number of food products containing contaminated chilli powder, which was imported mainly from India. Fresh chillies are not affected.

The risk to your health

Sudan dyes have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and these findings could also be significant for human health. Because Sudan dyes may contribute to the development of cancer in people they are not considered safe to eat. But there is no immediate risk of illness. At the levels found in these foods the risk is likely to be very small.