Food too often contains unintended substances, including dangerous materials such as dioxins and polyfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS). While efforts to reduce dioxins over the last 30 years has been successful, more work needs to be done to minimize other contaminating substances. New research published by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in the special issue Food Contaminants surveys the risks of various substances, examines the ways they enter food, and the explores their prevalence in humans and the environment. This information will be critical in protecting people from food contamination.
The food production process is far from perfect. Substances unintentionally present in food – known as “contaminants” – are often detected. Some contamination results directly from mistakes in processing and transportation, and it can also occur from presence of substances in the environment – from pollution as well as the use of agrochemicals and pesticides. These substances are often harmful to the humans who ingest them, and steps need to be taken to minimize the presence of these contaminants. These steps begin with cutting-edge research. In the words of Dr. Reiner Wittkowski, the vice president of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, “Far-sighted approaches for identifying new risks have to be developed so that we don’t have to play catch-up,” he said. “The institute is helping to make strides toward that goal with the research published in Food Contaminants.”
Research into this subject is so vital because it provides a direction for regulations that can have positive effects on human health. Such regulations have worked in the past. After research in the 1980s demonstrated that dioxins were both harmful and widely present in the food supply, regulation succeeded in drastically reducing their presence.
This same approach needs to be applied to other contaminants such as per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances or PFAS. These stubborn compounds are resistant to heat and water, degrade slowly, and are unfortunately widespread because of their use in hundreds of common consumer products. PFAS remain in the environment for long periods of time, and they bioaccumulate in a human body – that is, their concentration increases over time in the blood and organs. At a high enough concentration, PFAS are linked to cancer, birth defects, resistance to vaccinations, high cholesterol, and the delayed onset of puberty. Researchers study these substances, their effects on the body, and their prevalence in the environment and people in order to inform our public policy.
Examples of such policy include regulation of materials used to store and transport food. This material sometimes contains substances that can bleed into the food. Other policies entail regulation of the food production process, as some contaminants can result from industrial practices. Still other solutions can involve regulation of the disposal of contaminants to avoid pollution. Studies in the special issue help to guide such policies by examining not only the harmful effects of contaminants but their estimated prevalence in the environment, giving lawmakers an idea of the urgent need to take action now and a path for future legislation to take.
Food is our life source and as such, we deserve clean, healthy, unadulterated access to it. Various contaminants can not only be dangerous but have long-stemming effects that can be costly and disastrous in the long run.