Food Law News - EU - 2001

FSA Letter, 16 July 2001

CONTAIMINANTS - Consultation on The European Commission's Proposal to Introduce Legislation Controlling Radioactivity in Foodstuffs

This FSA consultation seeks views on the nature and structure of the proposed legislation in order to inform the Food Standards Agency on the line which the UK should adopt in the forthcoming negotiations. Replies are required by 1 October 2001 and earlier if possible.


The European Commission proposes to introduce new legislation to replace Council Regulation (EEC) 737/90, which came into force in March 1990. This lays down Maximum Permitted Levels (MPL) of radiocaesium contamination of Chernobyl origin in agricultural products originating from countries outside the Community that may be imported into the Community.

The new legislation would set MPLs on all products (foodstuffs) offered for sale in the Community, wherever they are produced. Current legislation adopted in 1987 sets out MPLs (given in Annex 1) for foods produced within the Community but only for use in the event of a future nuclear accident. The FSA understand that these MPLs will be superseded by the new legislation and apply at all times.

Why replace Regulation 737/90?

The European Commission has come to the view that Regulation 737/90 should be replaced for the following reasons:-

What are the options for replacement?

The Commission has considered three options for the replacement of Regulation 737/90, these are:

The Commission has indicated that the third option is their preferred choice as it is the simplest to implement and would be introduced under the provisions of the EURATOM Treaty.

Can you give some examples of the sort of changes that could be made and an idea of their impact on the UK?

There are a number of possible approaches to aligning the different MPLs of 737/90 and 3954/87 and two examples are given below.

The first option the European Commission might chose could simply be to merge the MPLs from both regulations. The effect of this is shown in the table of MPLs given in Annex 2.

If the European Commission chose to merge the MPLs as shown in Annex 2, this would have several effects on the UK. Certain species of shellfish collected from the west Cumbrian coast may exceed the proposed limits as a result of technetium-99 and plutonium-241 arising from permitted discharges from Sellafield, even though the food safety risk associated with these discharges is extremely low. For lobsters in particular, in which contamination levels of technetium are higher, the limits might be exceeded over a wider area, possibly from Lancashire to South West Scotland. Other foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables are very unlikely to be affected as levels of radioactive contamination are significantly below MPLs, and often below analytical limits of detection. Any new and lower caesium limit would require the Food Standards Agency to demonstrate that existing controls on sheep grazing certain upland areas of the UK contaminated by Chernobyl fallout were still adequate.

The second option the European Community might chose is similar to that described above, except that the numerical values assigned to 'all other nuclides' would be reduced by the amount which was re-assigned to the 'isotopes of caesium' category. In this case, the total sum of radioactivity allowed for each type of foodstuff is the same as Annex 1. The effect of this is shown in the table of MPLs given in Annex 3.

The impact of this change on UK foods would be similar to the situation described in paragraph 9, but levels of radiation in shellfish from a slightly larger area might exceed the proposed limits. Again, there would be no significant impact on other foodstuffs such as fruit and vegetables and existing controls on sheep would have to be confirmed as adequate.

How do these changes compare with the international dose limit?

The international dose limit for members of the public in the European Union is 1 mSv/year. To put the proposed changes into perspective, the Food Standards Agency has calculated the annual radiation dose from radiocaesium in the diet, because this radionuclide is most affected by the proposed regulations. The calculations below are for an adult consuming 1 kg per day of solid foods, 10% of which contained radiocaesium at the MPLs, for the options described in the Annexes to this letter. The value of 10% of the foods eaten being contaminated reflects the fact that our food comes from all over the world and it is extremely unlikely that all of it would be contaminated.

What if more extensive changes are proposed?

If a more wholesale revision of MPLs is undertaken, it is difficult to assess how these would affect the UK due to the large number of combinations of radionuclide grouping and MPLs that are possible, particularly if the MPLs set are based solely on arbitrarily chosen numerical values with no reference to actual radiation risk. In general terms the lower the MPL, the larger the area in which food might exceed the limit. This is also true if radionuclides with very low values of radiation dose per unit of radioactivity ingested, such as tritium and carbon-14 that are commonly discharged from non-nuclear establishments (hospitals, university research laboratories etc) were included in a 'all other nuclides' category.

In the final analysis, however, the UK would have to decide whether the desirability of a transparent, radiation dose based but possibly complex system is outweighed by the benefits of arbitrary one that is simply but opaquely derived.

Issues on which views are sought

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