Please note that legislation on contaminants is spread across several different areas of legislation, so it is recommended that you carefully read the entire section.
Under the legislation below an EU list of contaminants has been established setting maximum limits. View these contaminants and their limits
Definition of a contaminant
A 'contaminant' is defined in legislation (Regulation (EEC) No 315/93) as any substance not intentionally added to food which is present in such food as a result of the production (including operations carried out in crop husbandry, animal husbandry and veterinary medicine), manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment, packing, packaging, transport or holding of such food or as a result of environmental contamination.
Control of contaminants
Food must not be placed on the market that contains a contaminant in an amount which is:
- unacceptable from a public health viewpoint, and
- at a toxicologically significant level
Contaminant levels must be kept as low as can be reasonably achieved by following good agricultural, fishery and manufacturing practices.
Contaminants are chemical hazards. They should be identified and controlled as part of a food safety management system based on HACCP. Visit our HACCP section for more information.
General rules on contaminants
The general rules for contaminants in food are set out in:
Council Regulation (EEC) No 315/93 (OJ L37, p1 13/02/1993) of 8 February 1993 laying down Community procedures for contaminants in food
Latest consolidated version as at 7/08/2009
This legislation does not apply to contaminants which are the subject of more specific legislation. For example, pesticide residues, residues of veterinary medicines.
Maximum levels for contaminants in food
To protect public health, maximum levels for certain contaminants must be set. These are then placed on an EU list (please note, there are additional levels set for contaminants under other pieces of legislation). This list is set out in the Annex to:
Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 (OJ L364, p5, 20/12/2006 ) of 19 December 2006 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs
Latest consolidated version as at 14/10/2020
Sampling and Analysis
Food must be sampled and analysed in a standardised and reliable way to check that the food complies with the maximum levels set out in the legislation.
For this purpose, sampling and analysis the following Regulations have been implemented to provide standardised approaches for each substance or substance group:
In Ireland, the EU legislation on contaminants (including sampling and analysis provisions) is given effect by S.I. No. 218 of 2010 (European Communities (Certain Contaminants in Foodstuffs) Regulations, 2010), as amended. You can access these amendments on the Irish Statute Book website
Other EU legislation with rules on contaminants
As mentioned above, Regulation (EC) No. 1881/2006 does not provide an exhaustive list of all maximum limits set for contaminants in food.
Maximum limits for certain contaminants
Maximum limits for certain contaminants can be found in the following areas of legislation for particular foods. Please visit the relevant section to access the legislation.
Measures other than maximum limits for some contaminants
- Acrylamide - benchmark limits have been set in Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/2158, in addition to maximum limits, which fall under a different legal framework, i.e. the hygiene legislation
- Dioxins - action limits have been set in addition to maximum limits: Commission Recommendation of 3 December 2013 on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feed and food, as amended
Specific purity criteria (e.g. food additives), specifications (e.g. novel foods) and restrictions for undesirable substances (e.g. flavourings and food contact materials) have been set in other pieces of legislation and may contain maximum limits for contaminants.
Temporary increased controls for some imported foods of non-animal origin
There are temporary increased controls for some imported foods due to a known or emerging risk, or because of widespread non-compliance with food law.
Annex I of Regulation 2019/1793 on the temporary increase of official controls and emergency measures governing the entry into the Union of certain goods from certain third countries lists the food of non-animal origin subject to a temporary increase of controls at border control posts. This list is reviewed by the Commission at least twice a year.
Visit our section on import controls for products of non-animal origin
Pesticides and contaminants
Some contaminants, due to historical use as pesticide, are covered in pesticides legislation (e.g. legacy pesticides, such as DDT; mercury compounds, copper compounds). Visit our pesticide section for more information
National legislation with rules for contaminants
For some contaminants more extensive or specific national legislation also exists that is not currently covered by EU legislation. However, any existing national provision is automatically superseded once EU legislation has come into force.The following rules can be accessed on the Irish Statute Book website:
- Health (Arsenic & Lead in Food) Regulations, 1972 (S.I. No. 44 of 1972)
- Health (Arsenic & Lead in Food) (Amendment) Regulations, 1992 (S.I. No. 72 of 1992): These regulations set an overall maximum limit for lead and arsenic in food (with some exceptions), and food specific maximum limits. However, there are overlaps with EU Regulations, and in those cases, the maximum limit set in Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 apply
- Health (Erucic Acid in Food) Regulations, 1978 (S.I. No. 123 of 1978); Health (Erucic Acid in Food) (Amendment) Regulations, 1992 (S.I. No. 67 of 1992); European Communities (Erucic Acid in Food) (Method of Analysis) Regulations, 1982 (S.I. No. 271 of 1982): These Regulations specify limits for the erucic acid content of oil and fat and of food to which oil or fat has been added. The method of analysis determines the erucic acid content of oils, fats and compound foodstuffs to which oils and fats have been added. The maximum limits set by these Regulations have been superseded by Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 , as amended and Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2016/127 of 25 September 2015 supplementing Regulation (EU) No 609/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards the specific compositional and information requirements for infant formula and follow-on formula and as regards requirements on information relating to infant and young child feeding, as amended
- Health (Tin in Food) Regulations, 1993 (S.I. No. 389 of 1993): These Regulations stipulate that the level of tin in food shall not exceed 200 milligrams per kilogram of food. However, more strict maximum limits have been set in Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 , as amended, which supersede this maximum limit
- Health (Mineral Hydrocarbons in Food) Regulations, 1972 (S.I. No. 45 of 1972)
- Health (Mineral Hydrocarbons in Food) (Amendment) Regulations, 1992 (S.I. No. 71 of 1992). These Regulations provide (subject to certain exemptions) that the use of any mineral hydrocarbon in the manufacture or preparation of food and the importation, distribution, sale or exposure for sale of any food containing any mineral hydrocarbon is prohibited. The prohibition does not extend to chewing gum and other products, for which maximum limits of mineral hydrocarbon are prescribed. Specifications are set out for mineral hydrocarbon.
Although much effort has been made to cover provisions as much as possible, it is important to note that there may be other legislation where requirements are placed on contaminants that are not covered in this section. For this information please consult our other legislation sections or the Eur-Lex website.
Last reviewed: 13/1/2021