Dioxins and PCBs
Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Since 1 January 2012, with further specifications applicable as of January 2014 and May 2015, ambitious and legally binding maximum levels (thresholds) as well as voluntary action levels (early warning system) have applied throughout Europe to harmful dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in various foodstuffs of animal origin, vegetable oils and baby food. In particular, the previously differing national maximum levels for non dioxin-like PCBs in food have been harmonised and the scope of the provisions has been expanded for precautionary reasons to include food for babies and toddlers. These measures are an effective contribution to improving the protection of consumer health and food safety.
Action levels and maximum levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs (dl-PCBs) applying in selected food types throughout Europe
|Type of food||EU action level pg WHO-TEQ/g fat||EU maximum level pg WHO-TEQ/g fat|
|Dioxins||dl-PCBs||Dioxins||Dioxins + dl-PCB|
|Meat and meat products||1.25||0.75||1.75||3.0|
|Oils and fats||-||-||1.75||3.0|
|Hen's eggs and egg products||1.75||1.75||2.5||5.0|
|Beef and sheep meat|
|Meat and meat products||1.75||1.75||2.5||4.0|
|Oils and fats||-||-||2.5||4.0|
|Milk and dairy products including butter fat||1.75||2||2.5||4.0|
|Meat and meat products||0.75||0.5||1.0||1.25|
|Oils and fats||-||-||1.0||1.25|
|Mixed animal fats||1.0||0.75||1.5||2.5|
- Measuring unit: 1 pg (picogram) = 0.000 000 000 001 gram
- Action levels: Commission Recommendation of 11 September 2014 amending the Annex to the Recommendation 2013/711/EU on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feed and food (2014/663/EU; Official Journal of the European Union L 272, pp. 17-18)
- Maximum levels: The maximum levels for dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non dioxin-like PCBs are laid down in section 4 Annex I of Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 of 25 April 2023 on maximum levels for certain contaminants in food and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006.
Since 1 January 2012, a maximum level of 40 nanograms (= 0.000 000 001 gram) per gram of fat for harmful non dioxin-like PCBs in food such as poultry, beef, mutton, pork, cow's milk, eggs and mixed animal fats has applied throughout Europe, supplementing the regulations on maximum levels for dioxins and the sum of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs. It is lower than the national regulations applicable up to that date. The German provisions on maximum levels limiting the amount of non dioxin-like PCBs in food such as horse, goat and rabbit meat and meat from feathered and furred game and wild boar, applicable since 1988, go beyond the European legislation and are defined in section 4 of the annex to the German Contaminants Ordinance (Kontaminanten-Verordnung KmV).
Studies have shown that canned cod liver in oil often contains high levels of dioxins and PCBs. In early July 2008, an EU-wide maximum level of 25 picograms per gram wet weight in total was introduced for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in fish liver and fish liver products. This was replaced in January 2012 with a maximum level of 20 picograms per gram wet weight, also in total, for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs. However, even this lower maximum level does not ensure consumer health protection in cases of regular consumption of cod liver in oil. In the interest of preventive health protection, the consumption of cod liver in oil (usual size of a portion of 150g) should therefore be restricted to a maximum of every two months. Since 1 January 2014, updated maximum levels for dioxins and PCBs in livers and derived products from terrestrial animals have applied throughout Europe. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment recommends refraining from the consumption of sheep liver.
Maximum levels for dioxins and PCBs in livers of food-producing animals applicable throughout Europe
|Type of food||EU maximum pg WHO-TEQ/g wet weight||EU maximum level ng/g wet weight|
|Dioxins||Dioxins + dl-PCB||ndl-PCB|
|Liver and derived products of bovine and caprine animals, poultry, pig and horse||0.3||0.5||3.0|
|Liver and derived products of sheep||1.25||2.0||3.0|
|Liver of feathered game||2.5||5.0||-|
|Fish liver and derived products (except oils)||-||20||200|
- Measuring unit: 1 ng (nanogram) = 0.000 000 001 gram
- Measuring unit: 1 pg (picogram) = 0.000 000 000 001 gram
- Maximum levels: The maximum levels for dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non dioxin-like PCBs in the liver of food-producing animals are laid down in section 4 Annex 1 of Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 of 25 April 2023 on maximum levels for certain contaminants in food and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006
Dioxins and PCBs in the environment
Harmful dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can enter the food chain through air, soil or sediments. These impurities in food are therefore also referred to as environmental contaminants. Dioxins have never been intentionally produced by artificial means. Dioxins are undesired by-products of chemical processes in chlorine chemistry and all combustion processes involving chlorine and organic carbon under certain conditions such as temperatures between 250 degrees Celsius and 800 degrees Celsius or a specific duration of the combustion process. Unlike dioxins, in the past, PCBs were produced for specific purposes, mainly as non-burning, non-conductive viscous liquids in transformers or in hydraulics (mining).
Drop in dioxin emissions in the environment from 1990 to 2018
Since the mid-80s, numerous regulatory measures, in particular German air quality legislation, led to a drop in the release of dioxins and PCBs into the environment. Between 1990 and 2004, dioxin emissions from known sources were reduced by more than 90 percent. A further drop was recorded up to 2009. From then on, dioxin emissions remained relatively stable at a low level.
Since 1990, the amount of emissions produced by the individual emission sources has changed significantly. While waste incineration was by far the main source of emissions in 1990, in 2018 wild fires, small firing installations, transport and thermal processes in metal extraction and processing made up the largest share of remaining dioxin emissions.
How dioxins and PCBs enter the food chain
Dioxins and PCBs are very persistent and continue to contaminate sites everywhere in the environment, albeit at a lower level than before. On the one hand, soils and sediments in water bodies store pollutants, while on the other, they are the main sources of pollutants entering the food chain through re-dissolution. Negligent disposal of waste products and appliances containing PCBs leads to a further spread of these contaminants in the environment, and consequently to their continued presence in the food chain. The leakage of dioxins and PCBs into the environment has been significantly reduced over the past 20 years. Due to the persistence of these substances, however, this reduction is not reflected in a corresponding decrease in the contaminant levels found across all food types and husbandry methods.
Accumulation of dioxins and PCBs in the food chain
Milk is the most thoroughly analysed type of food. Between 1987 and 2000 the dioxin content of milk dropped by around 80 percent from approximately 2.3 to around 0.4 picogram dioxin toxic equivalent per gram of milk fat (1 picogram = 0.000 000 000 001 gram). Since then, the content has remained at a low level with minor fluctuations. The decline in the average dioxin content in milk and the importance of a high standard of health protection, especially for vulnerable groups, already led to a reduction in maximum levels for dioxins and total dioxins and dioxin-line PCBs in milk and milk products in 2022. These and all published maximum levels for dioxins in certain foods were adopted in Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 of 25 April 2023 on maximum levels for certain contaminants in food and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006.
Decrease in dioxin levels in milk from 1987 to 2018
Nevertheless, studies conducted by the federal states provide data for the whole of Germany showing that high levels of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs exceeding EU maximum levels are regularly found in rare foods such as lamb, sheep, game and Baltic cod liver and in the muscle meat of wild river fish. As a result, these products are not marketable. In addition to existing regulations and laws, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection has developed consumer tips on health and food safety.
The diagram shows that 70 percent of dioxins and PCBs are absorbed from the following foods of animal origin: eggs, milk and dairy products, poultry, beef and pork. This is because they are consumed in relatively high quantities.
Early warning system
Alongside EU-wide legally binding maximum levels for dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in various food types, non-binding action levels were set across Europe in 2002 as an additional measure to limit the presence of dioxins and PCBs in food. Dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs are emitted from different sources. This is why separate action levels were laid down for each group of substances. Depending on the type of food, action levels are between 25 and 30 percent lower than maximum levels. Action levels serve as an early warning system to help recognise above-average concentration, i.e. levels exceeding the background concentration which cannot be avoided by producers. Applying action levels helps to reduce dioxins and PCBs in food. Action levels serve to identify, control or eliminate sources of contamination before maximum levels are exceeded. The Commission Recommendation 2013/711/EU of 3 December 2013 on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feed and food includes the different action levels for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs for each group of substances as applicable since 1 January 2012.