• Global Safety Alerts on the Rise
  • Current Cadmium Limits
  • New Limits for Chocolate?
  • Know your Limits

Heavy metals have grabbed the global food safety spotlight in recent years as witnessed by a significant increase in scientific literature and social media posts focused on environmental contaminants. While arsenic and lead are heavy metals commonly associated with food, cadmium has emerged from the shadows to become a household name. Worldwide, the regulatory limits for cadmium in food are inconsistent. Recently, a Codex Alimentarius committee proposed new limits for cadmium in chocolate, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled plans to set cadmium limits as part of its Closer to Zero Action Plan.

Cadmium is a naturally occurring toxic metal found in soil, air, and water from regions with volcanic soil, environmental pollution, and excessive use of certain fertilizers. In humans, long-term exposure to cadmium has been linked to a range of adverse health effects, including cancer, bone loss, neurological impairment, and damage to the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Human exposure to cadmium is most commonly attributed to food, drinking water, and tobacco smoke.

Food is the most significant source of cadmium exposure for non-smokers, and all foods can contain trace levels of cadmium. The latest FDA Total Diet Study (TDS) reported the detection of cadmium in a wide range of foods.  A recent study of the TDS data indicated the “top food groups contributing to cadmium intake in the US population were cereals and bread (34%), leafy vegetables (20%), potatoes (11%), legumes and nuts (7%), stem/root vegetables (6%), and fruits (5%).” Worldwide, dietary sources of cadmium vary by geographic conditions and population groups. In some countries, seafood and organ meats (e.g. liver) contribute to the highest dietary intake of cadmium.

Global Safety Alerts on the Rise

A review of food safety notices in Safety HUD revealed that alerts due to heavy metals in food increased 62% when comparing two 12-month periods (2019-2020, and 2020-2021).

Safety HUD monitors food safety and fraud alerts from 58 countries. From June 2020 to June 2021, the food safety alerts involving cadmium increased 110%, and the top three food categories linked to cadmium alerts were 1) fish/seafood, 2) fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and 3) cocoa and cocoa preparations. According to Safety HUD data, the top countries of origin for the majority of food products associated with cadmium alerts were China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Current Cadmium Limits

The European Union (EU) has limits for cadmium in various foods. In terms of chocolate and cocoa preparations, the EU limits apply to the finished product (e.g. cocoa powder or chocolate) rather than the raw cocoa beans that are known to contain higher levels of cadmium. For cocoa powder, the EU limit is 0.6 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) net weight for cadmium. The EU maximum levels (MLs) for cadmium in chocolate are based on the cocoa content, including: 0.1 mg/kg in chocolate with a low cocoa solid content (≤30%), 0.3 mg/kg for chocolate with a moderate cocoa content (>30% to <50%), and 0.8 mg/kg for chocolate with a cocoa content of 50% or more.

In the United States, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mandate the absence of chemical hazards in food, including heavy metals. The FDA has developed limits for certain heavy metals (e.g. arsenic, lead, mercury) in food, but the agency has not yet established specific limits for cadmium in food.  However, the FDA has set limits for cadmium in some food color additives, and the U.S. EPA established a limit for cadmium in drinking water.

Recently, the FDA unveiled a strategic plan for reducing exposure to heavy metals from food. The objectives of the FDA’s Closer to Zero Action Plan include the evaluation of heavy metal levels in food and the establishment of action levels for metals in food intended for babies and young children (e.g., cereals, infant formula, pureed fruits, and vegetables). During Phase 3 (April 2024) of the plan, the FDA intends to propose action levels for cadmium.

At the state level, California has established maximum levels for cadmium under its Proposition 65 law, which requires warning labels on products containing chemicals determined by the state to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. The enforcement of Proposition 65 is typically accomplished through lawsuits, and heavy metals are a leading reason for lawsuit notices involving food. Last year, 239 notices of Proposition 65 lawsuits had suggested cadmium was present in various products, including food products such as spinach, kale, sunflower seeds, dietary supplements, shrimp and various seafood products.

New Limits for Chocolate?

The Codex Committee on Contaminants in Food recently recommended new maximum levels (MLs) for cadmium in chocolate products. The Codex committee proposed MLs for cadmium of 0.3 mg/kg for chocolate with up to 30% total cocoa solids, and 0.7 mg/kg for chocolate with a cocoa content of 30% to 50%.  In response to the proposal, some countries expressed support for the proposed MLs, but the United States was opposed to the 0.3 mg/kg ML for chocolate with 30% cocoa solids.  The EU suggested a lower cadmium limit is needed for food intended for certain populations, particularly children. In November, the Codex Alimentarius Commission will consider the committee recommendations for cadmium MLs and chocolate.

Know Your Limits

Mérieux NutriSciences recently launched Limit Detector as an online tool for determining the maximum limits as defined by food regulations for a specific substance and/or product in a market. Our Food Compliance Solutions unit designed the Limit Detector tool with a clean interface for searching the regulatory limits of chemicals (e.g. heavy metals, mycotoxins, natural toxins, others) and biological contaminants in specific food products. Contact us to request a demo of Limit Detector and a 10-day free trial.

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