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Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of organic compounds that are typically present in mixtures of several hundred compounds with the same basic structure. They are produced during the incomplete combustion of organic material. PAHs are components of fossil fuels such as coal and mineral oil. They are released into the environment through exhaust from motor vehicles, individual firing installations and heating units.

Carcinogenic PAHs entering the food chain via the environment play a negligible role in food contamination. The PAH content of unprocessed food is low or zero with few exceptions. As a general rule, these compounds occur during food preparation, for example when food is grilled, roasted, fried or baked, and during processes like kilning or drying, where there is direct contact with open flames or flue gases. The PAH levels in foods therefore essentially depend on how food is processed, in particular on preparation and conservation processes.

To protect consumer health, Commission Regulation (EC) No 208/2005, adopted on 4 February 2005, set the first legally binding maximum levels for benzo(a)pyrene as an indicator for harmful PAHs in various foodstuffs such as food for infants and young children, smoked meat and smoked meat products. As a precautionary measure, maximum levels of PAH were also set for the muscle meat of fresh fish to act as indicators for a potential pollution of the sea due to oil spills from shipping.

On 9 June 2008, the Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) produced an expert opinion on PAHs in food. In this document, EFSA concluded that benzo(a)pyrene is not a suitable indicator for the presence of PAHs in foodstuffs and that a system comprising four specific PAH compounds would serve best as a possible indicator for overall PAH levels in foodstuffs. EFSA proposed setting new maximum levels for the sum of the following four PAH compounds: benzo(a)pyrene, benz(a)anthracene, benzo(b)fluoranthene und chrysene. Additionally, the previous maximum level for PAH compound benzo(a)pyrene should be maintained.

It was established that while PAH can enter in the muscle meat of fish, it is broken down quickly. This means that PAHs do not accumulate in the muscle meat of fish. As a consequence, maximum level of PAHs in fresh fish do not need to be maintained. In view of the EFSA findings, Regulation (EC) No. 208/2005 was thoroughly revised and subsequently replaced by Commission Regulation (EU) No. 835/2011 of 19 August 2011 amending Regulation (EC) No. 1881/2006 as regards maximum levels for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in foodstuffs. Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/915 of 25 April 2023 on maximum levels for certain contaminants in food and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 was published in the Official Journal on 5 May 2023. It entered into force on 25 May 2023. All previously published maximum levels for PAH in certain foodstuffs were included in the new regulation.

Last updated: 06.06.2023

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