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Contaminants in Foods - Utrecht, The Netherlands 12-16 March


The Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods begins its twelfth session in Utrecht, The Netherlands on Monday 12th March.

The committee is chaired by Dr Wieke Tas of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality in The Netherlands.

Environmental contaminants

Q: The agenda starts with the industrial and environmental contaminants. What progress has been made on establishing maximum levels (MLs) for lead and for cadmium in chocolate and what needs to be done next to complete this work?

A: There’s a difference between lead and cadmium as lead is something that is entering the food from the packaging and so there are many more ways to control it. The US has been working on this for many years. The work has been carried out in different portions and so it is really very well planned. This has resulted in MLs that are easier and more accessible because we have simplified. There are not so many and so I think they are now much more practical. Of course, cadmium in cocoa is very different. It is coming from the soil which is different in different countries. And countries don’t all have the same ways or possibilities to reduce those levels in the end product. We’ve had discussions on how to deal with this and for which products we want the MLs. It was a difficult discussion and there were different views on whether we should set levels for intermediate products or for end products. We have had to think about what is traded and what is the most effective way to set levels. There were very different opinions about this and it was a very complicated discussion.

Q: And how does the committee balance the two requirements, that the products are safe and can be traded?

A: This is always the balance we have to find but not for the chocolate where there is no public health concern. We always balance the levels the committee sets against what the effects will be on the availability of food. Sometimes we know that a lower level can be obtained but then if more than 80% of the maize or another crop has to be rejected then of course this will lead to other problems, bigger problems – for example that people wouldn’t have enough to eat.

Q: The Committee is also working on a code of practice for esthers and glycidyl esters in refined oils, especially infant formula.

A: Codes of practice are very important. Of course, we need the MLs to give countries guidance on the kinds of levels to set for health issues but in a way, what is really challenging and the way to achieve these MLs are the codes of practice – they give guidance on what things can be done to actually prevent or reduce the levels of contamination.

Q: Are you saying it is almost more important that the code of practice is applied rather than just adhering to the maximum level?

A: In this instance I think it is yes. And this is not always the view when you look from the outside and where maybe you say, I’ll follow the levels then things will be ok. How to achieve those levels through a code of practice is vital. 


Q: Another part of the agenda deals with toxins. What are toxins and how do they occur?

A: The toxins that we talk about are produced by micro-organisms, by fungi, they effect crops, peanuts, herbs and spices which are sensitive to these funghi when they grow or when for example they are stored. The fungi growing on these foods produce toxins which then remain. Here too the code of practice is perhaps even more important then for the other substances because the way products are stored and how the crops are grown is directly related to how many fungi develop.

Q: How important is it that the work CCCF does is practicable and useable for all countries.

A: There’s big difference between what is easily achievable in one country and not so feasible in another country, and this plays a big role in the discussion. As Chair, The Netherlands has to weigh up these differences and cannot take for granted what a level for a particular contaminant should be when in other parts of the world conditions may be different.

Looking ahead

Q: The agenda item on low level presence of contaminants is an example of Codex looking ahead into the future. What is your view on the role of the committee here?

A: I agree that this is something relevant for the future. When I look back at what the committee has achieved over the last 40 years, we started with the big issues, the main crops and staple foods that form a big part of the diet and many of these issues have been addressed with MLs and codes of practice established. Now we see the commodities coming up changing and the committee is being asked to deal with, for example, chocolate and spices, much smaller parts of the diet. So other issues emerge, like how to deal with chemicals present at low levels. These kinds of more refined issues are appearing on the agenda and I think that is going to continue into the future.

Q: How ready is the committee and Codex in general to look forward towards new issues?

A: I think we could improve in Codex as a whole in taking up more strategic issues which are more relevant for future developments. In my experience, discussions in the committee are very much related to the issues of today and many countries are motivated to discuss and work on these issues and it is quite difficult to discuss more strategic issues that are relevant for the future. I’m very open to having these kinds of discussions and I would really support that. We have to think about how to address these issues and I’ve been trying to address these discussions in other meetings.

Q: The meeting will also examine four discussion papers on cassava, further work on lead, aflatoxins and a code of practice for cadmium in cocoa. What does it mean when a committee is looking at discussion papers. Where are we in the conversation?

A: These come at the very start of the process. To sharpen our minds on what the real issue we wish to discuss is, we prepare a discussion paper which contains a proposal, the intended outcome, and how we intend to plan. Then if there is enough support to pick up this new work we proceed.

Q: We’ve seen the adoption of web tools in the standard setting process and webinar technology in Codex. How will Codex need to work in the future?

A: We should make more use of the technical possibilities we have if they are working. There are big opportunities there to improve our work, to speed it up and to have more effective discussions outside of the meetings.

Did you know?

The Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods (CCCF) establishes or endorses permitted maximum levels or guideline levels for contaminants and naturally occurring toxicants in food and feed. The Committee also prepares priority lists of contaminants and naturally occurring toxicants for risk assessment by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives and considers methods of analysis and sampling for the determination of contaminants and naturally occurring toxicants in food and feed.

CCCF began life as the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants in 1964 and is one of Codex's oldest committees. In 2006 the Codex Alimentarius Commission split the Additives and Contaminants committees into two distinct bodies.