Cadmium is a contaminant that is widely distributed in the environment due to rock erosion and volcanism as well as emissions from industry. From the environment, cadmium enters food through various uptake pathways. Cigarette consumption also leads to additional intake for smokers and passive smokers due to the cadmium content in tobacco leaves. Cadmium accumulates primarily in the kidney, and this can be damaged by prolonged oral intake. Damage to bone tissue has also been described. The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) set a TWI ("Tolerable Weekly Intake") of 2.5 μg/kg body weight (bw) for cadmium.
We examined a total of 4067 samples from 67 different food categories in Austrian trade for cadmium in the years 2007 - 2012. Many staple foods of plant origin such as cereals, leafy vegetables and potatoes showed mean cadmium concentrations between 18 and 30 μg/kg. Food supplements, aquatic molluscs, mushrooms, cocoa products and chocolate were particularly highly contaminated with cadmium, with mean values above 65 μg/kg. Particularly low cadmium concentrations with mean values below 5 μg/kg were measured in fruit vegetables, cow's milk and water.
Exceedances of the maximum levels according to Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 as amended occurred in 9 samples from the seafood category, in 8 geese as well as 1 spinach sample and 1 horseradish sample. National action values were exceeded in 43 samples, mostly from the categories oilseeds and baby and infant food.
Leafy vegetables, root vegetables and potatoes are on average more contaminated with cadmium than fruiting and stem vegetables. Furthermore, the data show that rye contains less cadmium than other cereals. For chocolate, a correlation between cocoa and cadmium content could be demonstrated.
The intake of cadmium via different foods was calculated using average cadmium contents in foods and average consumption levels of men, women and school children. Cereals, potatoes, chocolate, and leafy vegetables were identified as significant sources of cadmium intake. Chocolate stood out as a source of intake due to the high levels of cadmium observed, whereas cereals, potatoes and leafy vegetables stood out due to their high consumption. In the period 2007 - 2012, bread and pastries, farm animal meat, pasta and fruit were not yet covered. These food groups have been described by EFSA as further important sources of cadmium, and will therefore be investigated in Austria in the coming years.
The cadmium intake via the foods investigated in Austria in 2007 - 2012 amounts to a total of 24 %, 30 % and 33 % of the TWI value for men, women and children, respectively. High consumers of potatoes and cereals in men and women exhaust 57 % and 71 % of the TWI value via the examined foods. High consumers of potatoes and chocolate in children reach 64% of the TWI value. It should be noted that bread and pastries, farm animal meat, pasta and fruit were not included in this calculation, and that the foods studied in 2007 - 2012 represent only a portion of the total food consumed.
EFSA already has cadmium occurrence data available on many major foods and estimated the total dietary intake of cadmium via food in Europe to be 68% of the TWI for adults, 158% of the TWI for children, 124% of the TWI for adult high consumers and 263% of the TWI for child high consumers.
In order to assess the Austrian situation more precisely, it is important to conduct cadmium studies in food groups not yet covered, which have been identified by EFSA as important sources of cadmium intake. These are primarily bread and cookies, followed by farm animal meat, pasta and fruit. Samples of bread, cookies and pasta are already being taken in the current year. In the coming years, sampling of farm animal meat and fruit is also planned to cover all major sources of cadmium in the food sector. A higher utilization of the TWI value cannot be ruled out as a result. In general, consumers and especially women of childbearing age, pregnant women and lactating women are advised to ensure a good mineral intake of iron, zinc and calcium to reduce cadmium intake.
This risk assessment addresses only oral cadmium intake from food, but it should be noted that cigarette smoke is a very high contributor to cadmium exposure.