Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs)
Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) occur naturally in plants and serve as protection for a variety of plant species against herbivores. PAs can end up in our food, such as spices, teas, leafy greens, and lettuce, when parts or seeds of plants containing PAs are inadvertently harvested along with these crops. Animal-based food products such as honey can also be contaminated when bees collect pollen containing PAs. Worldwide, PAs have been detected in more than 350 plant species. They are found more frequently in certain plant families such as Asteraceae, Boraginaceae, and leguminous plants. There are more than 600 different PAs of varying toxicity, yet the 1,2-unsaturated PAs are more relevant in terms of health concerns, since they are considered to be toxic for the liver, carcinogenic, as well as genotoxic. Due to these toxicological properties, PA plants, seeds, or even parts of them are not welcome in food products or animal feed. Since there are currently no legal limits for PAs in food or feed in the European Union, there is the general recommendation to minimize exposure to genotoxic and carcinogenic substances according to the ALARA principle: as low as reasonably achievable. However, this is supposed to change in July 2022.
The EU commission has drafted a regulation laying down maximum levels for PAs in certain food products. With this regulation, maximum levels will be added to the annex of the European contaminant Regulation (EC) 1881/2006 for PAs in tea, flavored teas, herbal infusions, plant-based dietary supplements, supplements based on pollen, pollen and pollen products, dried herbs, cumin, and borage (fresh or frozen). As previously mentioned, the new maximum levels should go into effect on July 1st, 2022. For products that have already been produced, there will be a grace period of 18 months, which means they can be brought onto the market until December 31st, 2023.
The GBA Group has inspected a large number of samples (e.g. teas, herbs, spices, honey, and supplements) for PAs over the course of the years. For this analysis, we use LC-MS/MS technology to execute the method described by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. This method covers 28 different analytes and can achieve a limit of quantification as low as 1 µg/kg.