2011-2013 Arsenic Speciation 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 analyze various foods for specific hazards.

The main objectives of the Arsenic Speciation in Selected Foods targeted survey were to generate baseline surveillance data on the levels of the various forms of arsenic in beverages, fruit products, grain products, rice and rice products and seaweed products available on the Canadian retail market and to compare these levels with data generated from previous FSAP targeted surveys, when possible.

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 expected as a result of natural accumulation from the environment. Arsenic levels in food are usually low; however, the levels are typically higher in aquatic organisms (such as seaweed, fish and seafood).

Arsenic can exist in both organic and inorganic forms in food; the inorganic forms are widely considered to be of greater toxicological significance to human health. 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 species are the main forms found in aquatic organisms, such as seaweed, fish and seafood. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic may lead to a variety of detrimental health effects in humans, including affecting the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, liver, lungs and skin as well as contributing to the risk of certain cancers.

In total, 2015 samples were collected from Canadian retail stores between April 2011 and March 2013 and analyzed for two inorganic arsenic species, and up to four organic arsenic species. Product types included beverages (bottled waters and juices), fruit products (canned fruits, fruit purees, dried fruit and fruit snacks), grain products (wheat bran and breakfast cereals), rice/rice products (rice grains, flour, bran, noodles/pasta/papers, crackers/cakes, puddings and beverages) and seaweed products (dried seaweeds of various forms). As anticipated, the majority of samples tested (87%) contained a detectable level of one or more arsenic species. Beverages had the lowest prevalence of arsenic, with only 68% of samples containing a detectable level of one or more arsenic species, whereas 100% of seaweed products and rice/rice products tested contained a detectable level of one or more arsenic species. With respect to the levels of inorganic arsenic, beverages had the lowest average levels of inorganic arsenic (3.84 ppb), whereas rice and rice products had the highest average inorganic arsenic concentrations observed (94.19 ppb).

The tolerance for arsenic in fruit juice, fruit nectar, beverages when ready-to-serve and water in sealed containers (other than spring or mineral water) specified in Division 15 of the Food and Drug Regulations is outdated and in the process of being reviewed by Health Canada. Health Canada has proposed lower tolerances for apple juice and bottled water; two apple juice samples tested in the current survey had total arsenic levels greater than the proposed new tolerance for apple juice and none of the water samples contained total arsenic concentrations higher than the proposed lower tolerance for bottled water. There are no other Canadian regulations for arsenic in any of the other foods tested in this survey, so compliance with a numerical standard could not be assessed.

All data generated were shared with Health Canada's Bureau of Chemical Safety for use in performing human health risk assessments. The levels of arsenic in the products tested in this survey were not considered to pose a concern to human health. No product recalls were warranted given the lack of a health concern.

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