The first step would be to impose ‘strict but feasible’ maximum limits, which would take effect from January 2002. If a food or animal feed exceeded the limits, it would then be viewed as unsuitable for consumption. To ensure an ongoing drive to reduce dioxins in food a revision clause is likely, with the aim of setting lower levels by the year 2006.

As well as setting maximum limits, target and action levels will be identified. Target levels would have a goal of achieving a human exposure below the level seen by scientists as a ‘tolerable weekly intake’ of dioxins. These limits would act as the driving force for any measures necessary to reduce emissions into the environment.

Action levels, set somewhere between the maximum limits and the target levels, would be used as an early warning system to flag up higher than desirable levels of dioxins, and would trigger investigations to identify and reduce or eliminate the contaminant source.

These levels will be set out in a package alongside the legislation to establish maximum limits in food and animal feed – in the form of amendments to an existing council directive on maximum contaminant levels in food and a similar directive on animal feed. The EC says that a firm numerical action level will be set as soon as the scientific data are available to back it up.

If member states back the proposition, the Commission will formally adopt the package this autumn.

“Our dioxin strategy is a sound response to a complicated cycle of contamination,” said David Byrne, the commissioner responsible for health and consumer protection. “Our ultimate goal must be to reduce the release of dioxins into the environment.”

“At the same time we need to decrease the presence of dioxins in feedingstuffs and consequently in foodstuffs in order to achieve the target levels whereby human dioxin exposure falls below the tolerable weekly intake recommended by scientists,” added Byrne.

EC scientists have found that the most heavily dioxin-contaminated feed is European fish oil and fish meal. This is used as fish food and also incorporated into feed for various animals that then go into the human food chain. It is thought that the legislation will focus on quickly ending the contamination from this basic source.

European scientists have established a tolerable weekly intake for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs of 14pg (picograms) toxic equivalents per kilo of body weight, which agrees with World Health Organisation limits. Unfortunately, dioxins are toxic not only because of daily intake but also due to the lifetime accumulation of the toxins in the body, the so-called ‘body burden’. However, from information provided by member states, much of the population of Europe has a higher intake of dioxins than the recommended tolerable weekly intake.

Despite this, EC specialists believe there is not necessarily an ‘appreciable’ risk to health, because the tolerable weekly intake includes a safety factor.

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