Chemical Contamination of Food: How to Minimise the Threat 

12/10/2023by admin0Read: 12 minutes

Chemical Contamination

The presence of harmful substances in our food supply, known as chemical contamination, is becoming a bigger concern for the food industry and the government. Contaminants like pesticides, fertilizers, additives, and heavy metals can seriously harm consumers. Therefore, it is crucial for food businesses to address chemical contamination in food to protect the safety and well-being of consumers.

The silent toxins lurking around in the food commodities can affect people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, causing short-term and long-term health complications.

In this article, we will explore the types of chemical contaminants and their potential risks to human health and how food businesses can minimise the threat by adhering to the requirements of the FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) standard.

Types of Chemical Contaminants in Food

Below are the different types of chemical contaminants found in the food:

a)  Pesticides

Although pesticides are commonly used in food production to control pests and increase crop yield, their residues can pose potentially harmful effects on human health on consumption.

b)  Heavy Metals

Heavy metal contamination in food may originate from a variety of causes, including pollution and agricultural practices.

Heavy metals of concern in food that can harm consumer health include lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.

c) Food Additives

Different food additives, such as preservatives, colourants, and flavour enhancers, are frequently utilized in food processing. Over-consumption of these substances can potentially lead to health hazards.

d) Environmental Pollutants

Environmental pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and furans can contaminate food through various pathways.

Consumption of food contaminated with these pollutants can pose potential health hazards.

e)  Antibiotic Residues

Antibiotic usage in animal production can result in antibiotic residues in food, posing implications for antibiotic resistance and human health.

f) Food Packaging Materials

Certain chemicals used in food packaging materials may migrate into the food.

Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are of special concern since their consumption can pose health hazards.

g) Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

GMOs in food raise potential risks and concerns, including allergenicity, unintended effects, and long-term health effects. Hence, it is crucial to address these concerns and ensure the safety of GMOs in food.

FSANZ’s List of Chemicals in Food

FSANZ has listed the key chemicals whose proportions in food need to be checked by food businesses to safeguard consumer health

1) Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a chemical present in starchy foods that can cause cancer in laboratory animals. FSANZ advises limiting acrylamide exposure in food. Acrylamide is found in a variety of foods consumed by Australians and New Zealanders, including fried potato items, cereal-based goods, and coffee. Acrylamide levels were found to be lower in the 24th Australian Total Diet Study than in earlier trials.

In 2012, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries evaluated dietary exposure through a survey of items that contribute to acrylamide consumption.

International food authorities and industry are working together to minimise acrylamide levels in food. New agricultural and processing techniques are being researched, such as decreasing cooking temperatures, employing enzymes, and acquiring raw materials with reduced sugar levels. The “acrylamide toolbox” is being created by Food and Drink Europe and a Codex working committee.

Guidelines to Consume Less Acrylamide

  • Potatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator or in areas where they will be exposed to light since this will increase the components that promote acrylamide development.
  • Before frying or roasting potatoes, soak them in water for 15-30 minutes or blanch them in boiling water to minimise the components that encourage acrylamide development.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s cooking instructions; many have changed them to lower acrylamide levels in their products.
  • Oven fries, hash browns, and roast potatoes should only be cooked to a light golden colour in a moderate oven (180-190°C).
  • One can eat less acrylamide by eating a balanced diet and cooking your food in different methods, such as boiling, steaming, or microwaving.

2) Aluminium 

Aluminium is a metallic element that occurs naturally in soil, water, and air. It enters meals through soil or water absorption or through food additives containing aluminium.

Aluminium-containing food additives are extensively used as leavening agents, emulsifiers, and anti-caking agents in Australia and New Zealand.

Based on harmful effects on reproduction and development in laboratory animals, the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organisation Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives produced a health-based guiding value (HBGV) for aluminium.

Aluminium’s probable significance in Alzheimer’s disease has yet to be established.

However, the dietary aluminium intake in Australia was within globally recognised acceptable ranges for the majority of the population, with a minor exceedance among 2-5-year-old high consumers.

The New Zealand Total Diet Study discovered greater quantities of aluminium in various baked items, but consumers faced no health risks.

3) Arsenic

Arsenic is a chemical element that may be found in both organic and inorganic forms in water, air, food, and soil. Arsenic is inevitable in foods, therefore FSANZ and other Australian and New Zealand government organisations monitor the food supply to guarantee safety and compliance with chemical contamination guidelines.

The Australian Total Diet Study examined total and inorganic arsenic levels in a variety of foods, including baby formula. The values were consistent with worldwide research and lower than the Food Standards Code (the Code) maximum levels (MLs).

FSANZ also performed focused surveys, such as measuring inorganic arsenic levels in seaweed, apple and pear juice, and tin, lead, and arsenic levels in canned fruits.

The Code establishes limitations for inorganic arsenic in some foods, including seaweed and molluscs, fish and crustacea, total arsenic in cereals (including rice), and salt at 0.5 mg/kg. These limitations apply to the main foods that are likely to contribute to arsenic exposure and take into account the whole population, including subpopulations such as newborns, children, and the elderly.

Recent Australian research on arsenic contents and dietary exposure from rice-based infant food products revealed concerns about exposure levels in newborns and children, according to FSANZ.

The government recommends customers have a varied diet to reduce the hazards linked with a more restricted diet. High quantities of inorganic arsenic have been found in several fish and seaweed products, including hijiki seaweed.

4) Benzene

Benzene is a typical industrial chemical that may be found in a variety of goods such as plastics, rubbers, detergents, medicines, and insecticides. Low quantities of it can occur in beverages containing ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and sodium benzoate, which can be added as antioxidants or to prevent spoiling.

Australia and New Zealand’s non-alcoholic beverage industries have attempted to limit benzene generation by identifying reasons and implementing methods. The International Council of Beverage Associations (ICBA) has created a Guidance Document to Mitigate the Potential for Benzene Formation in Beverages, which offers industry with benzene-reduction techniques.

Since 2006, the Australian Beverages Council Limited (Beverages Council) has required members to decrease benzene production in their products, and since 2007, it has reported benzene levels to FSANZ.

However, the health risk of benzene exposure through drinks is relatively minimal, since it would take more than 20 litres of a benzene-containing drink at the WHO water quality recommendation level to match the amount of benzene in city air in a day.

5) Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used in food and beverage packaging to keep food fresh and increase shelf life. While some studies have highlighted concerns about BPA exposure, scientific consensus largely believes that at the amounts humans are exposed to, there are no health or safety risks. BPA has been researched by food safety regulators all over the world, including Australia.

Various agencies like Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) regulate BPA in Australia.

In response to consumer concerns, the Australian Government announced in June 2010 that large retailers would voluntarily phase out BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic baby bottles. The Australian and New Zealand Food and Grocery Councils are likewise voluntarily eliminating BPA from polycarbonate plastic baby bottles and offering BPA-free alternatives.

In 2010, the ACCC and FSANZ conducted a study that discovered no detectable BPA levels in Australian newborn feeding bottles, sip cups, or formula brands.

6) Chemicals in Food – Maximum Residue Limits

A maximum residue limit (MRL) is the quantity of agricultural or veterinary chemical residue that can be found in a food product marketed in Australia, whether it is domestic or imported. MRLs assist law enforcement in determining if an agvet chemical was used to control pests and illnesses in food production.

FSANZ completed M1019 in 2022 to evaluate and update a food naming system that corresponds with both the Codex and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority food classification systems while remaining flexible enough to react to changes in the local and international food supply.

Food regulatory bodies in Australia implement the Food Standards Code and MRLs, monitoring agricultural chemical residues and food industry usage. The Australian Total Diet Study is used by FSANZ to investigate residues. The Department of Agriculture inspects imported commodities to ensure public health and safety.

FSANZ evaluates agricultural chemical residues in diets and reviews MRL harmonisation requests, addressing global variations in climate, pests, and diseases. Harmonization helps work with the World Trade Organisation.

FSANZ also investigates chemical residues in Australian food with the help of the Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS).

7) Chemicals in Food Packaging

Food packaging is essential for preventing contamination, making transportation easier, and increasing shelf life. However, concerns have been expressed regarding pollutants transferring from packaging into food.

FSANZ concluded research in October 2017 to investigate the hazards of packaging chemicals migrating into food. FSANZ decided that the estimated dietary exposure to these chemicals is minimal and not of concern for human health after a thorough safety evaluation, targeted and public consultation, surveys, and a dietary exposure assessment.

As part of the 24th Australian Total Diet Study, FSANZ performed a screening study of packaging chemicals, and the first evaluation found no public health or safety issues for 28 of the 30 chemicals.

However, the screening study concluded that additional research was needed for two phthalates [di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DINP)] to evaluate if these compounds pose any concerns to public health and safety.

Furthermore, a follow-up survey revealed that the estimated dietary exposure was lower than the tolerated daily intakes (TDIs) for these drugs and did not constitute a public health risk.

FSANZ will continue to monitor scientific developments in this area and produce guidelines for small and medium-sized enterprises to ensure safe packaging. Previous chemical surveys on food packaging found no phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, semi carbazide, acrylonitrile, or vinyl chloride in food samples.

The Food Standards Code in Australia and New Zealand requires food manufacturers to guarantee that the food in contact is safe.

8) Dioxins

Dioxins are compounds that result from the combustion of home and industrial garbage, as well as industrial operations. They can survive in the environment for a long time and penetrate food, although their levels are low.

The majority of dioxins are emitted into the atmosphere, with bushfires and burning agricultural stubble being key sources.

Furthermore, animals in seas, rivers, and lakes can absorb dioxins from fallen plants and filter-feeding animals.

Since 2001, the Australian Government has financed a four-year National Dioxins Programme to eliminate dioxins in the environment. Since 2005, FSANZ and the NSW Food Authority have studied the possible harmful health effects of dioxins in Sydney Harbour seafood, concluding that the risks are extremely low.

9) Ethylene Oxide

Ethylene oxide is a man-made chemical that is employed as a filler in industrial items, a sterilising agent in healthcare, and a fumigant pesticide in agriculture. It was originally used as a fumigant insecticide for food in Australia, but it has been phased out globally owing to health concerns.

Although ethylene oxide is safe for specialised workplaces, long-term exposure may raise cancer risk.

The Food Standards Code specifies ethylene oxide residue limitations; however, the regulation was repealed in 2003. Other countries may continue to utilise ethylene oxide.

10) Fluoride in Bottled Water

The Food Standards Code allows 0.6-1.0 milligrams of fluoride per litre of bottled water for oral health advantages, like drinking water.

A risk evaluation study conducted by FSANZ concluded that fluoride in tap water at this level is safe. Fluoridated bottled water has the same nutritional value as tap water. All fluoridated bottled water must be prominently labelled.

However, everyone can drink fluoridated bottled water, and ordinary bottled water (but not natural or sparkling mineral water or soda water) can be used to produce baby formula.

Ensure to follow the preparation instructions on the formula label.

11) Glyphosate

Glyphosate is a pesticide that has been approved for use in Australia to reduce leafy weeds by blocking a plant-based enzyme. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) controls agricultural and veterinary chemicals such as glyphosate and establishes Maximum Residue Limits for food.

The APVMA has set an ADI of 0.3 mg/kg body weight for glyphosate. The APVMA is still reviewing scientific data on glyphosate to verify that registered products may be used safely in accordance with label guidelines.

The Australian Total Diet Study (2019) discovered relatively low glyphosate levels in cereal-based items such as bread, biscuits, breakfast cereals, and baby cereals. These values are far lower than the Maximum Residue Limits permitted by the Code, ensuring consumer safety and reflecting excellent agricultural practice.

According to the 25th Australian Total Diet Study (2019), there are no health issues among Australian consumers, including children. The bread had the greatest concentration of glyphosate at 0.080 mg/kg, while baby cereal had a single detection at 0.011 mg/kg.

12) Melamine

Melamine can be found in plastics and other items, and trace quantities can be detected in meals owing to leaching from contact materials. Chinese health officials issued a warning about melamine in infant formula and dairy products in 2008.

A survey was undertaken by FSANZ and state authorities, which resulted in product withdrawals and recalls. Due to quarantine limitations, Australia does not import baby formula goods from China. Melamine levels in food have been judged to be acceptable by FSANZ.

13) Mercury in Fish

Fish is high in protein, vital omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, and vitamins, while being low in saturated fat. Most fish contain minimal amounts of mercury, therefore there is no reason to avoid eating fish entirely. Mercury naturally exists in the environment and accumulates in fish over time.

The majority of fish have modest levels, with certain species having greater levels. The quantity of mercury in a fish varies on its age, habitat, and food. Most individuals consume moderate amounts of fish, and the benefits outweigh any possible mercury-related hazards.

Women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy

1 portion is 150 grams#

(up to 6 years)

1 portion is 75 grams#

Rest of the population

1 portion is 150 grams#

​1 portion per week of Orange Roughy (Deep Sea Perch) or Catfish and no other fish that week ​ ​​1 portion per week of Shark (Flake) or Billfish (Swordfish/Broadbill and Marlin) and no other fish that week
​1 portion per fortnight of Shark (Flake) or Billfish (Swordfish/Broadbill and Marlin) and no other fish that fortnight ​


When pregnant, eating fish can harm the neurological system and cause developmental delays in children.

Check the label of packaged or canned fish and split the portion size into smaller quantities to prevent exceeding the portion size. If you are unsure about the type or name of the fish, enquire with the salesperson or service staff.

14) Perfluorinated Compounds

Perfluorinated compounds (PFOS), PFOA, and PFHxS are synthetic chemicals that can be found in a variety of items such as clothing, textiles, fabric protection, furniture, and fire-fighting foam. The scholarly literature on their effects on humans is equivocal, however, animal testing has revealed some effects at modest dosages.

FSANZ was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Health (Health) in 2016 to offer advice on suitable health-based guideline values (HBGVs) for PFOS, PFOA, and PFHxS. In December 2016, FSANZ concluded its evaluation and issued advice on suitable HBGVs, including recommended tolerated daily intakes (TDIs) of 20 ng/kg bw/day for PFOS and 160 ng/kg bw/day for PFOA.

In 2017, Health received a consolidated report that includes the HBGV report, the dietary exposure report, and a risk management report.

FSANZ supports other Commonwealth, state, and territory authorities’ current on-site risk management strategies to control and limit possible food exposure to these substances. They recommended enquiry trigger points for PFOS + PFHxS combined and PFOA to determine when additional study may be warranted.

The 24th Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS) Phase 2 showed no PFOA detections and just two PFOS detections out of 50 foods examined. The 27th ATDS discovered that PFAS levels are extremely low in the general Australian food supply, with PFOS being the only congener detected in five of 112 food groups and less than 2% of all samples.

FSANZ also conducted an assessment of current research on the potential for PFAS to impair the human immune system, concluding that there is a lack of consistent evidence that PFAS at environmental exposure levels are damaging to the human immune system.

15) Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in Foods

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) are naturally occurring plant poisons that can be harmful to one’s health if taken in large quantities. Over 600 PAs are generated by over 6000 plants and may be found in a variety of foods such as honey, tea, herbs, spices, cereals, and animal products.

FSANZ determined a safe dietary exposure threshold for PAs of one microgram per kilogram bodyweight per day in 2001. However, there is no evidence that typical intake causes damage. It is not suggested that people who drink more than two tablespoons of honey each day use Paterson’s Curse honey solely.

FSANZ is conducting pilot research in Australia to explore PA levels in honey, teas, and herbal infusions, extending on previous studies and the international risk assessment of Pas by the Joint Expert Committee for Food Additives (JECFA).

How can Anitech’s Food Safety Consultants assist Australian Food Businesses in preventing Chemical Contamination of Food?

Anitech’s experienced Food Safety Consultants can assist Australian food businesses in preventing chemical contamination of food by conducting the following:

1) Risk Assessment:

Our experts can conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential sources of chemical contamination and assess the likelihood and severity of risk for businesses.

2) Internal and Supplier Audits:

They can help with internal audit of an organisation’s business processes and management system to ensure they adhere to the food safety standards and regulatory requirements in Australia. Furthermore, Anitech’s consultants can help in evaluating suppliers’ practices and ensuring they adhere to proper chemical handling and storage protocols.

3) HACCP Plans:

Our consultants can assist in developing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans that include procedures for chemical storage, handling, and usage to prevent cross-contamination.

4) Training:

We also create training programs to train staff on proper chemical handling, storage, and usage procedures to minimise the risk of contamination during food preparation and processing.

5) Regulatory Compliance:

Furthermore, Anitech’s experts will ensure that businesses comply with Australian food safety regulations and standards (FSANZ) related to chemical usage and contamination prevention.

6) Labelling and Documentation:

Our team shall also help in reviewing labels and documentation to ensure accurate listing of chemicals used in food processing, as required by regulations.

7) Traceability Systems:

We will also help businesses in implementing systems to trace and track chemicals used in food production, enabling rapid identification and recall in case of contamination.

8) Monitoring and Testing:

Our food safety consultants will also guide Food Companies creating monitoring programs to regularly test food products for chemical residues and contaminants, ensuring early detection and mitigation.

9) Emergency Preparedness:

Our team is proficient in developing protocols to help organisations respond to chemical contamination incidents, including isolating affected products and notifying relevant authorities.

10) Continuous Improvement:

Additionally, Anitech’s consultants will share their industry expertise with clients, offering guidance on continuous improvement strategies to enhance chemical management practices and reduce the risk of contamination over time.

Thus, by leveraging the expertise of Anitech’s food safety consultants, Australian food businesses can establish robust protocols, improve their chemical management practices, and create a safer environment for both consumers and their products.

Call us today for assistance at 1300 802 163 or e-mail – sales@anitechgroup.com.

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