2013-2014 Aflatoxins in Corn Products, Nuts and Nut Butters, Dried Fruits, Cocoa Powder, Breads, Breakfast and Infant Cereals, and Spice Powders

Executive Summary

Targeted surveys are used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest risk. The information gained from these surveys provides both support for the prioritization of the Agency's activities to areas of greater concern and scientific evidence to address areas of lesser concern. Originally started under the Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP), targeted surveys have been incorporated into the CFIA's regular surveillance activities as a valuable tool for generating essential information on certain hazards in foods, identifying/characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting/refining human health risk assessments, assessing compliance with Canadian regulations, highlighting potential contamination issues, and promoting compliance.

The main objectives of this targeted survey were to

  • generate baseline surveillance data on the levels of aflatoxins in selected domestic and imported corn products, nuts and nut butters, dried fruits, cocoa powder, breads, breakfast and infant cereals, and spice powders available on the Canadian retail market,
  • compare the aflatoxin levels in these results to other Canadian and international data on aflatoxins, where possible.

Aflatoxins are a family of mycotoxins (naturally-occurring, and toxic secondary metabolites) produced by Aspergillus fungi. Hot, humid conditions and pest damage during plant growth or storage can favour the growth of aflatoxin-producing fungi, leading to the presence of aflatoxins in foods. Aflatoxins are known to occur in corn and corn products, nuts and nut products, dried fruit, grains, and spices. Short-term exposure to high levels of aflatoxins can cause illness in humans which is characterized by vomiting, abdominal pain, convulsions, coma, and death. The illness is very rare in the developed world. Chronic or long-term exposure to higher levels of aflatoxins has been linked to a number of human health effects, including increasing the risk of developing liver cancer.

The 2013-2014 CFIA Aflatoxins survey targeted domestic and imported corn products, nuts and nut butters, cocoa powder, spice powders, breads, breakfast and infant cereals, and dried fruits. A total of 969 samples were collected from retail stores in 6 Canadian cities between July 2013 and March 2014. The samples collected included 238 nuts and nut butters, 228 corn products (e.g. corn tacos, corn/tortilla chips), 148 breakfast/infant cereals, 115 breads, 97 dried fruits, 94 spice powders, and 49 cocoa powders. Samples were analysed using a multi-analyte method that detects aflatoxin forms B1, B2, G1 and G2. Most of the samples (94.7%) did not contain a detectable level of aflatoxins. The total aflatoxin levels in the remaining samples ranged from 1.0 parts per billion (ppb) to 72.2 ppb.

In general, aflatoxin levels reported in the current targeted survey were consistent with the results obtained from the analysis of similar products from previous CFIA surveys. While a U.K. study detected lower average and maximum aflatoxin levels in paprika compared to the current CFIA survey, the data is still somewhat comparable, as is the data for raisins. In CFIA studies, 0-1% of raisin samples tested had detectable levels of aflatoxins while a study conducted in Iran showed 8% of the samples tested positive.

The Canadian Food and Drug Regulations specify a tolerance of 15 µg/kg (ppb) total aflatoxins in nut and nut products. All but one sample of nuts and nut butters (99.6%) were compliant with these regulations. Currently there are no regulations established in Canada for aflatoxin levels any of the remaining products tested so compliance with a numerical standard could not be evaluated. Health Canada reviewed all the data and has determined that none of the samples, including the nut product sample exceeding the tolerance, posed a concern to human health. No product recalls were warranted given the lack of a health concern.

The CFIA will continue its surveillance activities and inform the Canadian public and stakeholders of its findings.

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