2011-2012 Lead in Dried Herbs and Spices

Executive Summary

The Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP) aims to modernize and enhance Canada's food safety system. As part of the FSAP enhanced surveillance initiative, targeted surveys are used to test various foods for specific hazards.

The diet as a source of lead exposure is documented on the Health Canada web page which states that: "Lead is a naturally occurring metal found in rock and soil, and also has many industrial applications. Due to both its natural occurrence and long history of global use, lead is present in air, water and soil, as well as in food, drinking water and household dust. Levels of lead in the environment have declined significantly over the past few decades due to the discontinued use of lead in paint, gasoline and the solder used in food cans. Since the phase-out of leaded gasoline and the subsequent reduction of airborne lead, food and drinking water are currently the primary sources of lead exposure to adults within the general population".

Lead is not permitted to be added to foods sold in Canada; however, due to its widespread presence in the environment, it is detected in all foods, generally at very low levels. Lead can enter the food chain through various pathways, such as uptake from soil into plants. Contamination of food could also occur during food manufacture (e.g., from the use of inappropriate food storage materials, processing equipment, etc.).

Lead levels in meat, dairy products, eggs, honey, fruits and vegetables (processed and fresh), and fresh herbs are monitored annually under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's National Chemical Residue Monitoring Program (NRCMP). The NCRMP does not routinely test finished and/or manufactured foods, such as dried herbs and spices. There is limited Canadian data available from other sources (i.e. Health Canada's Total Diet Study) and high lead levels have been reported for some spices in the United States and in the European Union by the media and in the scientific literature. Therefore, the main objective of the current survey was to generate baseline surveillance data on the level of lead in dried herbs and spices available on the Canadian retail market.

The 2011-2012 FSAP Lead survey targeted domestic and imported dried herbs and spices. A total of 148 samples were collected from grocery and specialty stores in 11 Canadian cities between April 2011 and March 2012. The samples collected included 90 spices and 58 dried herb samples.

All of the 148 samples analyzed contained a detectable level of lead, with concentrations ranging from 0.013 parts per million (ppm) to 8.476 ppm. Currently, no maximum level, tolerance, or standard has been established by Health Canada for lead in dried herbs and spices so compliance to a numerical standard could not be assessed.

All foods sold in Canada must comply with Section 4 of the Canadian Food and Drugs Act. In the case of lead, the Government of Canada recognizes that there can be multiple sources of lead in food. Nonetheless, all food industries are expected to minimize the presence of lead by any and all processes and practices available to them. This is consistent with the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle. Given the wide variety of processes, procedures and sources of raw materials, the means of implementing the ALARA principle will be company-specific.

All the data generated were shared with Health Canada for use in performing human health risk assessments. Health Canada concluded that the levels of lead found in the dried herbs and spice products tested in this survey were unlikely to pose a health concern. No follow up action was required.

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