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Persistent Pollutants

EU agency sets limit on PFAS in food

Recommended threshold applies to combined exposure to 4 perfluorinated substances

by Britt E. Erickson
September 26, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 37

An assortment of fresh food including fish, fruits, eggs, vegetables, and bread.
Credit: Shutterstock
Healthful foods like fish, eggs, and fruit often contain some of the highest levels of PFAS, according to the European Food Safety Authority.
Chemical structure of perfluorononanoic acid.

Regulators in the European Union have updated their guidelines for protecting consumers from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food. The latest recommendations from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), released Sept. 17, set a limit for combined exposure to four PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), and perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)—in food. EFSA previously recommended individual limits for PFOA and PFOS.

Chemical structure of perfluorhexanoate.

EFSA’s new recommended limit for the four PFAS combined is 4.4 ng/kg body weight per week. The agency based that number on the ability of PFAS to decrease people’s immune system response to vaccinations. When the agency released guidance on PFAS in food in 2018, it considered increased cholesterol as the main health effect. Blood serum data and estimated exposures suggest that some people in the EU exceed the new threshold level, according to EFSA’s risk assessment.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid.

PFAS are a class of synthetic chemicals found in numerous products, including textiles, firefighting foams, electronics, and food packaging. Known for their ability to repel water and grease, PFAS persist in the environment and contaminate many drinking-water supplies. Exposure to certain PFAS is linked to immune and hormone disorders.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

The four chemicals that EFSA evaluated in its risk assessment are the main PFAS in food that bioaccumulate in people, the agency says. PFAS are found in many foods but most often in fish, fruit, and eggs, the agency says.

The US Food and Drug Administration evaluated 16 PFAS in various food products in 2019. The agency claimed that it could not draw any conclusions from the data because the sample sizes were limited. Even so, it noted that there was no indication that the levels of PFAS found in food pose a risk to human health.

The FDA attributed preliminary reports of high levels of perfluoropentanoic acid in chocolate cake to the use of an inaccurate analytical method.



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