Food Safety Action Plan Report 2010/2011 (Chemistry)

Arsenic speciation in rice and rice products, breakfast and infant cereals, fruit products, bottled water and seaweed products

Executive Summary

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

The main objectives of this survey were to:

  • generate baseline surveillance data for total arsenic levels in rice and rice products, breakfast and infant cereals, fruit products, bottled water, and seaweed products;
  • examine the proportions of inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products, breakfast and infant cereals, fruit products, bottled water, and seaweed products; and
  • compare the arsenic speciation results for rice and pear products in this survey with the 2009-2010 FSAP arsenic speciation survey.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in trace amounts in rock, soil, water and air. The primary routes of human exposure to arsenic are through drinking water and food. The presence of arsenic in food and water is generally considered to be normal accumulation from the environment. Arsenic levels in food are usually low; however, the levels are usually higher in aquatic organisms (such as seaweed, fish and seafood) than they are in drinking water or vegetables. Arsenic can exist in both organic and inorganic forms in food, the inorganic forms being more toxic. The ratio of inorganic to organic arsenic species can vary widely depending on the source of contamination and the commodities in which it is present. While inorganic arsenic is the predominant species in drinking water, organic arsenic forms predominate in aquatic organisms, such as seaweed, fish and seafood. The proportion of inorganic and organic arsenic in other foods can vary significantly. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic may lead to a variety of detrimental health effects in humans, most notably cancer.

A total of 1071 food samples of domestic and imported origins were collected at Canadian retail stores (280 rice and rice products, 355 breakfast and infant cereals, 251 fruit products, 95 bottled waters, and 90 seaweed products). The samples were tested to determine the total arsenic content and the levels of various organic and inorganic species present.

Most of the products (1034 of 1071 samples or 96.5%) contained detectable levels of total arsenic. Seaweed products contained the highest average level of total arsenic at 26.30 parts per million (ppm) or 26300 parts per billion (ppb), followed by breakfast and infant cereals at 100.54 ppb, rice and rice products at 89.38 ppb, fruit products at 12.95 ppb, and bottled water at 2.06 ppb. As expected, the determination of the levels of inorganic and organic species of arsenic in each sample indicated that the ratio of inorganic arsenic to total arsenic (inorganic and organic species) varies with product type. Although seaweed products have the highest reported levels of total arsenic, seaweed products typically have very little inorganic arsenic. The average percentage of inorganic arsenic ranged from 22% to 99%, depending on the product type.

There is an established arsenic tolerance in fruit juice, fruit nectar, beverages when ready-to-serve and water in sealed containers other than spring or mineral water specified in Table I of Division 15 of the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR). Health Canada has informed industry and the CFIA that the current tolerances listed in Table I of Division 15 in the FDR are under review. It is still noted that the arsenic tolerance (which is under review) was not exceeded in any of the fruit juice or nectar products tested. Three samples of bottled water had levels of total arsenic which exceeded the Canadian drinking water guidelines for arsenic. There are no Canadian regulations for total or inorganic arsenic in the other product types analyzed in this survey, so compliance to a numerical standard could not be assessed. None of the samples were determined to pose a concern to human health. Appropriate follow-up actions were initiated that reflected the magnitude of the human health concern.

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