EU protection of public health: Metal contamination detention issues at borders

The European market is the leading world market for fish and fishery products. It is also the first market to issue trade legislation for the protection of fish stocks, beginning in 1996 with EU Regulation 2406/1996: "Laying down common marketing standards for certain fishery products". This legislation regulated the minimum admissible sizes of fish that were legally allowed to be caught. The European market has also introduced stringent measures aimed at protecting the health of European consumers by regulating the quantities of chemical residues admissible in fish and fishery products. One of the most important issues is the presence of heavy metals, particularly cadmium, lead and mercury. In 2006, the European Commission Regulation 1881/2006 established the maximum levels for such contaminants in food products.

Within the fisheries sector, the issue of heavy metals is particularly relevant to large pelagic fish, such as tuna and swordfish. These fish are at the top of the food chain and therefore tend to accumulate higher quantities of heavy metals, especially mercury, in their muscular tissues. The quantity of heavy metals in these species often exceeds the limits set by the EU. Contamination of fish by heavy metals are closely related to the biology of the specific fish species – in terms of which level of the food chain the fish live in – and in certain geographic areas, this factor is accentuated by the localized environmental pollution. In general, contamination by heavy metals is not due to deliberate adulteration or fraudulent conduct.

High quantities of heavy metals are still the principal cause of border detention in the EU and the main problem that importers from non-EU countries must address. The economic losses deriving from EU border detentions are considerable, amounting to hundreds of millions of Euros each year. These losses have led European importing companies to choose smaller sizes of pelagic fish whenever possible, in the hope that they will be younger fish that have not accumulated large quantities of heavy metals during their lifetimes. The result is that larger specimens of pelagic fish tend to be consumed in the local markets of non-EU countries, while the smaller fish are selected for exportation. Below is a broad demonstrative sample of causes of border detention related to chemical risks in the EU.

Although the sampling method for these products adheres to Regulation (EU) No 836/2011 of 19 August 2011 amending Regulation (EC) No 333/2007, its main purpose is to make the sampling of the catch that fishery products analyzed as representative as possible, since this sample is very often carried out upon small quantities of the product.

A positive result for heavy metals in an imported and sampled product results in a health alert for any subsequent volumes of the product, leading to a substantial inconvenience and economic losses for importers as well as those working in the sector. This is especially the case for fresh products, in which there are significant volumes of the product arriving on an almost daily basis.

The European regulations on the maximum admissible levels of heavy metals in fishery products may have had an unintended consequence of encouraging damaging fishing and trading practices, which tends to encourage the capture of younger fish, even though they are within the size limits for this category. The importation legislation that is intended to protect consumer health should therefore be revised, since it should consider both consumer health along with the effects on the environment and the ecological systems o  f the fishery zones involved. The limits on the presence of certain heavy metals, especially mercury, are likely to be carefully analyzed in the near future, perhaps along with the introduction of labels concerning the consumption of these products. Fresh bivalves already have mandatory specifications for labeling to protect consumer health, with these labels stating, "molluscs must be alive at the moment of sale" or "this product is defrosted, do not refreeze again".

A more holistic approach is now needed, ideally one that considers the global system of fishery practices, rather than only concentrating on the aspect of imports. There should be an attempt to prevent barriers that damage the livelihood of those who import fishery products, public health, and the marine ecosystems. In the future, European legislation should take into account not just issues of consumer health in the country of destination, but also carefully consider issues such as international commerce and local fishery practices.


Contact: Ruggero Urbani, FAO Consultant, Fish Inspector-Quality Assurance and Fish Auction expert

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