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Food monitoring: an important tool for consumer protection

19/2001, 10.07.2001

New data confirm minor contamination of foods with undesirable substances

In Berlin the European representatives of the contact points of the Global Environmental Monitoring System/Food-Euro (GEMS) are coming together today for a three-day meeting at the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine. The meeting will focus on the introduction of a new software which in future will considerably ease the collection of data on the contamination of foods with undesirable substances in the participating countries and should also speed up the assessment process. In time for the meeting BgVV presented its Food Monitoring Report 1999 which was jointly prepared by the Federal Government and Länder and provides information on the contamination situation in Germany. The results from 1999 in the federal Länder confirm minor contamination of foods with undesirable substances on sale on the German market and thus confirm the findings of the monitoring programmes from the previous years.

GEMS/Food was set up 25 years ago as a joint programme of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) as an important component in the Global Environment Monitoring Systems (GEMS). The aim of the programme is to collect data on the contamination of foods with specific chemical substances on the international level, to evaluate them, to point out any possible risks for the consumer, and to provide the participating countries and international organizations with a basis for risk prevention. Around 70 countries take part in the programme. The German contact point is BgVV.

Since 1995 Germany has had an additional national tool for improving consumer health protection: food monitoring. Within the framework of monitoring, foods on the German market are examined for their contamination with plant protection products, heavy metals and other undesirable substances with a view to obtaining reliable data on the occurrence of these substances, of identifying in a timely manner any risk potential and, where appropriate, instigating short-term risk-reducing measures. Food monitoring is an independent task of the official food control of the federal Länder. They are responsible for collecting the samples according to a sampling plan developed by BgVV which permits representative statements on the contamination situation and for examining the foods. The organisation, collection and evaluation of the data and the provision of information to the general public are all tasks of BgVV.

In 1999 4,918 samples of domestic and foreign origin were examined for residues of up to 120 plant protection products and their metabolites, for the environmental contaminants nitrate, nitrite and mycotoxins. Samples were mainly taken from trade but also from manufacturers, importers and abattoirs. Besides samples of plant and animal origin, mineral water was also examined. The vast majority of samples did not show any unusual results with regard to the occurrence of organic environmental contaminants and no or only traces of plant protection products were identified. Only in 2.3 percent of samples were the contents above the statutory maximum levels. Special measures to ensure preventive consumer health protection did not have to be taken.

What should be viewed as particularly positive is that an important food like wheat has again been found to be almost free of residues. Also the strict statutory provisions for dietary foods were largely complied with for milk powder for the preparation of formula for infants and small children.

The results of the studies can be summarised as follows:

  • The nitrate contents of the foods examined are in the low ranges. However, in 1999 none of the typical types of vegetable which accumulate nitrate were examined.
  • The examination of foods for heavy metals was largely uneventful: only linseed frequently contains high levels of cadmium.
  • Cultivated mushrooms only had a low level of heavy metals.
  • The studies for mycotoxins confirmed again in 1999 the high to very high contamination of Iranian pistachio nuts with aflatoxins.

The following recommendations are derived from the study findings:

  • All foods examined within the framework of monitoring can be eaten without reservation in respect of the occurrence of undesirable substances.
  • Nutrition should be balanced and diverse.
  • Fruit and vegetable should be thoroughly washed prior to consumption or cooking.
  • In contrast to cultivated mushrooms, which monitoring showed to have only a low level of heavy metals, wild mushrooms have higher heavy metal contents. BgVV, therefore, upholds its recommendation not to consume more than 200 to 250 g wild mushrooms a week.
  • Because of the frequently high cadmium contents of linseed, whole or finely crushed linseed should preferably be used in the case of regular and long-term consumption as the resorption of ingredients correlates with the degree of size reduction of the corn. It is the highest for the consumption of crushed linseed and lowest for the consumption of whole grains.
  • The aflatoxin problem with Iranian pistachios continues. Compliance with the maximum level provisions is being controlled to a greater degree by official food control.

The report on Food Monitoring 1999 can be requested at a cost of DM 10 in writing from the Press and Public Relations Office of BgVV or can be accessed as a PDF file on the Institute's website (


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