The highest levels of the toxic substance in relation to fat content were found in liver and liver products from animals, said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In animal feed, the highest levels of the carcinogens were identified in fish oils.
The report was based on the testing of more than 7,000 samples taken between 1999 and 2008 in 21 European countries.
“Overall, eight per cent of the samples exceeded the different maximum levels set out in EU legislation,” said the agency. “However, some of these samples clearly originated from targeted sampling during specific contamination episodes. There were also large variations between different groups of food and feed in terms of the proportion of samples which exceed maximum levels.”
No clear trend
EFSA also pointed out that no clear trend could be established from the study findings over background levels of dioxins as some categories increased while others had fallen. Occasional contamination episodes and a lack of information on which samples came from targeted or random sampling may have skewed the results, said the body.
The EU currently measures overall dioxin levels based on toxicity values recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1998. EFSA said that had they used the WHO’s 2005 revised and downgraded toxic assessments, the adjusted values would have been 14 per cent lower than their published results.
Dioxins and similar compounds, such as dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), include a range of toxic substances which are formed by burning. They are found at low levels in many foods and while they do not cause immediate health problems, long-term exposure to high levels of the chemicals is hazardous to health.
“Their persistence and the fact that they accumulate in the food chain, notably in animal fat, therefore continues to cause some safety concerns”, said EFSA.
The report, from the agency’s Data Collection and Exposure unit, urged ongoing monitoring. It called for continuous random testing of a sufficient number food and animal feed samples to ensure that accurate estimates of dioxin levels were gathered in future.