2011-2012 Dioxins and Dioxin-like Compounds in Selected Foods

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 generate data to evaluate various foods for specific hazards.

The main objective of this targeted survey was to provide baseline data regarding the presence and levels of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds in selected foods (specifically vegetable oils and fats, dairy-containing foods, nut/seed butters, nutritional supplements/meal replacements, and guar gums) available on the Canadian retail market.

Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds are chemical contaminants that have been associated with a wide range of adverse health effects in laboratory animals and humans. The type and occurrence of these effects typically depend on the level and duration of exposure, as well as the types of compounds involved. 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD), generally considered the most potent dioxin, has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a human carcinogen. The World Health Organization considers dioxins and dioxin-like compounds a health concern on a global scale, and has recently reiterated the need to reduce emissions of, and human exposure to, these persistent pollutants. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 90% of a person's exposure to dioxins and dioxin-like compounds occurs through the diet, particularly through the consumption of high-fat animal tissues and dairy products.

A total of 256 samples were collected and analyzed in this targeted survey. Samples included 92 vegetable oils and fats, 52 dairy-containing foods, 49 nut/seed butters, 40 nutritional supplements/meal replacements, and 23 guar gums. Samples were analyzed for dioxins and dioxin-like compounds (which consist of certain polychlorinated dibenzofurans and polychlorinated biphenyls). All of the samples had a detectable level of one or more dioxins and/or dioxin-like compounds. This is expected given their widespread presence and persistence in the environment, their ability to bioaccumulate in fatty tissues and biomagnify through the food chain, and the sensitivity of current analytical methods.

Canada's Food and Drugs Act prohibits the sale of food that is adulterated, and the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) state that food, with the exception of fish, which contains chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins is adulterated. The regulation causes enforcement challenges, as it does not reflect the large improvements that have been made to analytical methods of detection for these substances. This tolerance was established many years ago and is considered to be untenable and out of date by Health Canada. Due to the ubiquitous nature of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds in the environment, and the fact that methods of detection are becoming increasingly sensitive, "zero tolerance" is not practical and is not applied by Canada or any of its' major trading partners.

The levels of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds observed in this survey were evaluated by Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety and none of the samples were expected to present a safety concern to human health. Appropriate follow-up actions were initiated that reflected the magnitude of the human health concern. No product recalls were warranted.

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