2011-2012 Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury and Aluminum in Infant Formulas, Meal Replacement Beverages, and Nutritional Supplement Beverages

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 examine various foods for specific chemical and microbiological hazards.

The main objective of this targeted survey was to establish baseline data on the levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and aluminum in food products that may be used as a sole source of nutrition or nutritional supplement by Canadians. Specifically, infant formulas (both milk-based and soy-based), meal replacement beverage products, and nutritional supplement beverage products (specifically marketed to provide supplemental protein) were targeted.

There are a number of naturally-occurring metals that may be of concern to human health at certain levels of exposure. Most notably, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury have been shown to effect human health, even at low levels of exposure. These metals may be present in finished foods due to their presence in the ingredients used to manufacture those foods, and/or may be unintentionally incorporated along the food production chain. Whether from natural or man-made sources, all food industries are expected to minimize as much as possible the presence of metals of concern to human health by any and all processes available to them. This is practiced in accordance with the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle. Aluminum is not generally considered to be of concern to human health. However, the hazard characterisation and the exposure assessment for aluminum were recently re-assessed by Health Canada and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), therefore it was included in the current survey.

In this survey, meal replacement beverages, nutritional supplement beverages, and infant formulas were examined for the presence of metals that may be of concern to human health. These types of products are meant to supplement and/or act as a complete nutritional source for specific subsets of the population. Infants, children, and the elderly/infirm may be more likely to use single source nutritional products to ensure that their dietary needs are being met.

Three hundred and five samples (157 samples of infant formula, 66 samples of meal replacement beverages, and 82 nutritional supplement samples) were collected from Canadian retail stores between November 2011 and March 2012. Samples were analyzed for the presence of arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and aluminum. All products were tested "as sold", meaning that they were not prepared as per manufacturer's instructions (i.e. as they would typically be consumed).

Ninety-one percent of the infant formulas tested did not contain detectable levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, or mercury. Meal replacement and nutritional supplement beverages generally had higher frequencies and concentrations of detectable metals. It was not possible to determine the source of the metals in the products tested as they were highly processed finished foods. Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety (BCS) was consulted on the observed levels of metals and provided the opinion that, in general, the samples tested herein do not pose a concern to human health. No follow-up action was warranted given the lack of health concern.

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