2011-2012 Ochratoxin A in Selected Foods

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.

This targeted survey focussed on the natural toxin, ochratoxin A (OTA), which can contaminate grains during grain storage. As OTA is heat-stable, if present, finished foods may still contain detectable levels of OTA despite being substantially processed. OTA has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The main objectives of this survey were to:

  • establish baseline surveillance data for OTA levels in infant formula, beer, dried fruit, soy products, and grain-based products (wheat products, corn products, oat products, milled products of less commonly consumed grains, infant cereals, breakfast cereals, breads, baked goods and crackers);
  • compare OTA levels in these specific commodities relative to Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety's proposed maximum levels for OTA; and
  • compare the prevalence of OTA 2011-2012 with the prevalence in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 CFIA FSAP OTA and DON surveys, where applicable.

A total of 1290 samples were analyzed for the presence of OTA. These samples included infant foods (98 infant formulas and  59 infant cereals), milled grain products (126 "other grain" products e.g., quinoa, buckwheat, 102 wheat products, 73 corn products, and 31 oat products), processed cereal products (193 breads/baked goods/crackers, 155 breakfast cereals, and 150 beer) and other foods (198 soy products and 105 dried fruits.

Fifty-six percent of the samples did not contain detectable levels of OTA. The samples with detectable levels of OTA were from all types of products included in this survey. OTA levels ranged from 0.040 parts per billion (ppb) to 28.55 ppb. The OTA levels were compared, where applicable, against Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety's proposed maximum levels for OTA. A total of eighteen samples had elevated levels of OTA - fifteen samples exceeded the proposed maximum levels for OTA and three samples for which there are no proposed maximum levels for OTA. The fifteen samples comprised ten infant cereals, two bread/baked goods (one multi-grain crisp bread, one naan bread), one cake and pastry wheat flour, one wheat bran, and one wheat germ) samples. One soy flour sample contained a level of OTA that was elevated relative to other soy products and to similar cereal-based products in the current survey. Two "other grain" products (buckwheat flour and buckwheat, also called kasha), also contained elevated levels of OTA relative to other buckwheat products and commodities in the "other grain" group.

There was no apparent trend in the year-to-year values. Relative to the previous FSAP survey(s), the maximum OTA level in the current survey was lower in infant formula, infant cereals, oat products, and breakfast cereals but higher in wheat products, corn products, beer, and dried fruit. For "other grain" products, breads/baked goods/crackers and soy products, there was no comparable Canadian data available for comparison and the degree of agreement was variable.

All the data generated were shared with Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety for use in performing human health risk assessments. Adverse health effects associated with OTA are associated with long-term exposure, thus periodic, short-term exposure to elevated OTA levels in a limited number of foods would not be considered to pose a safety concern.

In the absence of established tolerances or standards for OTA in foods, elevated levels of OTA in specific foods may be assessed by Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety (BCS) on a case-by-case basis using the most current scientific data available. If BCS identifies a potential safety concern, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency can exercise follow-up actions. Follow-up actions are initiated in a manner that reflects the magnitude of the health concern. Actions may include further analysis, notification of the producer or importer, follow-up inspections, additional directed sampling, and recall of products. Health Canada's BCS concluded that the levels of OTA found in the products tested in this survey were overall very low and therefore unlikely to pose an unacceptable health risk. Consequently, no follow-up activity was required.

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