Trace elements

Unit responsible: 

Assessing exposure to trace elements in the food chain and the environment, and their underlying risks

We act as the Belgian National Reference Laboratory for trace elements in food, feed and materials in contact with food. As experts in this matter, we determine trace element levels in the food chain and the environment. We also assess the human dietary exposure to these elements and their elemental speciation, and we evaluate the associated risks to health. 

To this aim, we develop, optimise, validate and accredit methods for the analysis of trace elements and their species, using the most advanced techniques. Furthermore, we develop and validate methods for the analysis of metal and metal oxide nanoparticles in food and food additives.

Thanks to our analytical methods, we are able to detect and quantify various trace elements in diverse matrices. We primarily focus on those elements that can adversely affect consumers’ health. Known examples are cadmium in spinach, lead in infant foods, inorganic arsenic in rice and mercury in fish.

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Monitoring the presence of trace elements in the food chain and the environment, and assessing their underlying impact on human health constitute our core expertise. Based on our research, we assist and advise the Belgian Federal and Regional authorities (FPS Public Health, Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain, Environment, Nature and Energy Department and OVAM).

Our analytical capability in the field of trace elements is essential to our operation and makes it possible to analyse trace elements in various components of the food chain and the environment, and above all to fuel our research projects.

Specific topics of our scientific research over the past years include:

  • Analysis, exposure and risk assessment of trace elements and/or their species in food and food supplements
  • Integration of bio-accessibility of trace elements in exposure and risk assessments
  • Study of the background concentrations of trace elements in Flemish soils
  • Study of transfer of trace elements from the environment (soil, air, feed) to food
  • Study of the absorption, distribution and elimination of nanoparticles in rats
  • Analysis of total element concentrations (e.g. Cd, Pb, As, Cu, Zn, Se, Hg, … )
  • Separation of different element species followed by a quantification step
  • Analysis of metal and metal oxide nanoparticles in food and food additives to determine the particles’ size, the size distribution and the concentration of selected nanoparticles
  • For materials in contact with food, migration is performed according to the Resolution of the Council of Europe Res(2013)9 for Metals and Alloys, and according to 84 / 500 / EC and 2005 / 31 / EC for Ceramics.

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