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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 17, 2020


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

Food 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 4 PFAS—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), 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/week. The agency based that number on the ability of PFAS to decrease people’s immune system response to vaccinations. In contrast, in 2018 when EFSA released its previous guidance on PFAS in food, it considered increased cholesterol as the main health effect. Some people in the EU exceed the new threshold level based on blood serum data and estimated exposures, according to EFSA’s risk assessment.

Chemical structure of perfluorooctanoic acid.

PFAS are a class of synthetic chemicals found in numerous products including textiles, fire-fighting foams, electronics, and food packaging. Known for their ability to repel water and grease, PFAS also 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, EFSA says. Diet is just one source of exposure to PFAS. Ingestion of dust and inhalation of indoor air can also be a major route, according to EFSA.

The US Food and Drug Administration evaluated 16 PFAS in produce, meat, dairy, grain, and other food products in 2019. The agency claimed that it could not make 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 and chocolate milk to the use of an inaccurate analytical method. When the agency retested those products with a revised method, PFAS levels were below the detection limits.



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