In 2015, some 3,049 original notifications were communicated through RASFF, triggered by food poisoning outbreaks, adverse reactions to food supplements and allergic reactions due to the presence of unlabeled allergens.1

While the number of notifications to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASSF) remains fairly stable, increasing concern about the hazards of food contaminants, and the risks they pose means food manufacturers, governments and non-governmental agencies, are implementing policies and processes to monitor and reduce contaminants. At the same time, RASSF notifications resulting from food adulteration and/or fraud events have doubled since 2014.

Key Food Contaminants 

Potential food contaminants cover a wide range of substances:

  • Bacterial and viral pathogens
  • Dioxins
  • Food allergens
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Heavy metals
  • Hormones
  •  Melamine
  • Mycotoxins
  • Pesticide residues
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Radiation contamination
  • Veterinary drug residues

Depending on their toxicity and the level of contamination, the impact of contaminants varies. From skin allergies, to more serious illnesses (including cancers and neurological impairments) and even death, their effects can vary dramatically.

Contaminant testing throughout the value chain is the key to ensuring that food and feed products are fit for consumption. In concentrated levels, melamine, antibiotics and hormones can be harmful to animals and humans. Contaminant testing will determine if these impurities, among others, are present and allow for the removal of products from the production and distribution chain.

Permitted Maximum Levels

To protect consumers, food safety legislation in many countries proscribes the maximum levels for contaminants permitted in food products. Disappointingly, these are rarely harmonized across national borders. This inconsistency places responsibility for compliance firmly with the food supply chain. A comprehensive testing program can verify that products meet maximum levels and the safety standards they represent.

Global Regulations

In the European Union (EU): The food business operator carries primary responsibility for food safety. The primary EC legislation on general food safety is the General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002,2 complimented by more specific directives and regulations such as Directive 2001/18/EC and regulations 1829/2003 and 1830/2003 concerning non-GMO/GMO products.

In the USA: Rules regarding maximum levels vary from state to state. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has now been signed into law, but at the local level, state regulators can still apply additional regulations and laws. 

In China: With enhanced provision for monitoring and supervision, improved safety standards, recalls for substandard products and dealing with compliance failures, China passed its Food Safety Law (FSL) in 2009.

Monitoring Programs

Whether mycotoxins or microbiological values, heavy metals or pesticides – independent sampling and testing provide an objective and comprehensive overview of what food products contain. Monitoring programs are a highly effective way to identify any contamination issues; delivering credible data on both quality and contaminants.

Third Party Testing

At SGS, we have established a worldwide network of laboratories, where we meet best testing practices for a range of contaminants. Our skilled technicians test across a wide variety of products, employing food contaminant testing methods such as:

  • Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) 
  • Liquid Chromatography – Mass Spectrometer Coupled (LC/MS-MS) 
  • Enzyme-linked Immunosorbant Assay (ELISA) 
  • Polymer Chain Reaction (PCR)
  • Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) 
  • Inductively Coupled Plasma – Mass Spectrometer Coupled (ICP-MS) 
  • Atomic Absorption Spectrometer (AAS) 
  • High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) 
  • High Resolution Mass Spectrometry 
  • High Performance Liquid Chromatography with Post Column Fluorescence Derivatization (HPLC-FLD) 
  • High Performance Liquid chromatography with Ultraviolet Spectrophotometer (HPLC-UV) 

Our contaminants testing laboratories are ISO 17025 accredited and operate under strict guidelines. 

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For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety

For further information contact: 

Jim Cook 
Global Food Inspection Technical Manager 
t: +1 973-461-1493


1 RASFF - Food and Feed Safety Alerts - European Commission
2 General Food Law Regulation (EC) 178/2002