Cadmium

Apart from nutrients, planted crops can also absorb undesired substances that are naturally present in soils. One of these substances is cadmium. The levels of cadmium are low in grains compared to other types of food. However, it is still important to have control of and minimize the levels of cadmium. Lantmännen works hard to minimize cadmium levels in our food products. These efforts are conducted throughout the whole chain from field to fork.

Cadmium is naturally present in the soil

Cadmium is a heavy metal naturally present in the soil. Levels vary depending on geography and type of soil. As cadmium is present in soils and is absorbed by crops it is found in most of the food that we eat, though often at very low and harmless levels.

Cadmium is not acutely toxic but stays in the body during a long period of time and is accumulated in the kidneys. Potential health risks are due to long term exposure, i.e. the total amount of cadmium absorbed from various sources over time. Studies show that a large intake during a long period of time can cause, among other things, an impaired kidney function, osteoporosis and contribute to cardiovascular disease.

How much cadmium are we exposed to?

Most Swedes are exposed to less cadmium via food than the recommended limit stated by the European Food Safety Authority Efsa. However, as cadmium is an undesired substance and a small percentage of the population is likely to exceed this limit, it is still important to minimize the amount in the food we eat.

Grain-based products generally contain small amounts of cadmium. However, it is a food category that many people eat a lot of. Organ meats, seafood and certain types of mushrooms are examples of foods that can contain high levels of cadmium.

In Sweden, the National Food Agency monitors and handles issues related to cadmium and other undesired substances in food. 

Affect the cadmium level in food

To decrease levels of cadmium in food requires long-term efforts in several areas. Above all, it’s about where and in what type of soil we choose to cultivate different types of crops for various purposes. Methods for control and analysis of cadmium levels also need to be further developed at all stages – from soil and fertilizers to crop and finished product. Efforts to minimize additional cadmium entering the ground are also required. Air pollution from incineration plants and the use of fertilizers containing cadmium can to some extent contribute to higher cadmium levels in soils. 

There is no difference between organic and conventional production considering levels of cadmium, as the crops risk absorbing the cadmium occurring naturally in the soil regardless of cultivation method. 

Lantmännen's work with cadmium

Clear limit values

Lantmännen works to keep cadmium levels as low as possible and set our own limits that lie below legislated ones. All grain raw material that is used for our own food products may contain a maximum of 0,08 mg/kg, compared to the legislated value of 0,20 mg/kg.

Plant breeding

Another key to further decreasing cadmium levels is plant breeding. Lantmännen actively uses plant breeding to decrease the risk of cadmium absorption in the various types of plants. These efforts have already yielded results and has contributed to a lower exposure for consumers. A higher degree of cooperation between private and public actors and more joint ventures regarding plant breeding adapted to the Nordic region’s conditions is necessary.

Increased sampling precision

Avoiding grains from fields containing high levels of cadmium is of course a possible measure in decreasing levels of cadmium in grains. However, the variations in cadmium levels differ greatly on a very local scale i.e. variations between specific fields or even certain parts of fields.  Therefore, refined mapping and new technology is needed in order to identify the parts of the fields where problems may arise. Only then can one identify relevant and feasible action to be taken in certain areas. Stopping cultivation in large areas for no reason is not a resource efficient way to address the question as arable land is a scarce resource. Achieving more detailed cadmium mapping is key in order to further reduce cadmium levels in grains.

Development of analysis methods

Faster methods for analyzing cadmium make it easier to manage the grain raw material in the processing stage and thereby achieve even lower levels of cadmium. Lantmännen are now participating in a research project where a new technology for fast cadmium analysis is being tested.

Managing cultivation

Based on the knowledge of local cultivation conditions, it is possible in the long term to develop a management of where it is best to cultivate grains for various purposes. Since a couple of years back, the cultivation of durum wheat for pasta has been developed on Gotland. Durum wheat is usually difficult to cultivate in our cold Swedish climate, but Gotland has shown to have a favorable climate for durum wheat as well as naturally low levels of cadmium in the soil. This is an example of how further value can be added to grain cultivation in regions with favorable conditions.

Mineral fertilizers with low cadmium levels

Even if the bedrock is the main determinant of cadmium levels, cadmium is to some extent added over time to the soils, which can increase levels over time. One source is cadmium fallout from the air – pollutions from different types of incineration processes. Choice of fertilizers can also have an impact. Cadmium levels in the mineral fertilizers used in Sweden are very low, which Lantmännen as a large player on the market has contributed to over a long period of time. Since a long time, the levels in mineral fertilizers have varied between 4-8 mg Cd/kg phosphorus, compared to legislation that allows 100 mg Cd/kg P.