New maximum levels for plant toxins in spices and herbs

Contamination of spices and herbs with plant toxins is a frequent problem during production. The European Commission proposed new maximum levels for these contaminants. The new levels apply from July 2022.

Pyrrolizidine and tropane alkaloids

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) and tropane alkaloids (TA) are present in more than 6,000 species of blooming plants. Some weeds contain high amounts of these alkaloids. These can be transferred to nearby plants such as vegetables, herbs, spices and tea. Weeds containing PA include ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) and other members of the daisy family, the ‘forget-me-not’ or borage family (Boraginaceae) and the pulses family. TA is present in weeds like thorn apple, black henbane, jimson weed, field bindweed and deadly nightshade.

Both TA and PA are toxic to people and animals. To date, nearly 700 PAs have been discovered; some of them are extremely toxic. PAs can cause liver damage. They also have genotoxic (genetic mutation causing) and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects. TAs can cause gastrointestinal reactions. They also cause reactions like decreased gland function, dilation of the pupils and eye spasms. At the moment, TA levels in spices and herbs are under discussion. But, limits for cereal-based baby foods are already set.  

New PA levels challenging for producers

In June 2020, the Standing Committee of the EU Commission accepted a Draft Regulation. The regulation sets maximum levels for pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) in foodstuffs. Proposed limits for PA are 400 μg/kg for dried herbs and cumin seeds, and 300 μg/kg for mixtures where the proportion of the ingredients is not known. The maximum levels refer to the total amount of 21 pyrrolizidine alkaloids and N-oxides, and 14 more pyrrolizidine alkaloids and N-oxides. These new levels have not yet been approved.

The proposed PA levels are challenging. Early tests showed that it was very difficult to find cumin seeds on the market that met the proposed maximum PA levels. Meeting these levels is even more challenging in the organic production of spices and herbs. In conventional production, weeds with PA can be removed by herbicides. But, in organic production, the use of conventional herbicides is not allowed.

To prevent PA contamination of organic spices and herbs, you should use integrated pest management. For example, you should grow crops at safe planting distances from potential risk areas. Also, physically remove weeds while they are in the early development stage.

Learn more

Do you want to know more about the requirements of the European market? Read our study on buyer requirements for the spices and herbs sector.

Autentika Global wrote this news article for CBI.

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