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Food and Nutrition

ARCHIVED - Health Canada Statement on Semicarbazide

Warning This content was archived on June 24 2013.

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Health Canada wants to inform Canadians about the results of some industry-sponsored research recently released in Europe that found trace amounts of the chemical semicarbazide (SEM) in some foods sold in glass jars with metal lids.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) yesterday released a risk assessment of these findings that characterized them as inconclusive and stated that "the risk to consumers - if any - is judged by scientific experts to be very small, not only for adults but also for infants." Health Canada's initial assessment, based on the information currently available, supports the conclusion that any risk that might exist is very low. Health Canada is therefore not advising consumers to avoid food products sold in glass jars in light of these European findings.

SEM is a chemical by-product of azodicarbonamide, a chemical used in making the plastic gaskets that seal the jar lids of a range of products, including fruit juices, jams, honey, baby food, pickles, sauces, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup. Azodicarbonamide is used to improve the properties of the plastic seals used in glass jar lids to prevent leakage and microbiological contamination of the jar contents. Similar lids are used for some jarred foods sold in Canada.

The chemical, thought to migrate from the gaskets into the food, was found in very low amounts, ranging from zero to 25 parts per billion. The scientific information available about the potential health effects of SEM is very limited at this time. Animal studies suggest SEM might cause cancer in female mice that are regularly fed high amounts of the chemical over long periods of time. However, the chemical has not been linked to cancer in male mice or rats of either sex, according to existing research. There is no evidence that suggests SEM causes cancer in humans.

Health Canada is committed to keeping food safe from chemical contaminants and is taking a number of steps to address the EFSA research findings:

  • Health Canada will be working with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to determine if SEM is present in foods sold in jars in Canada.
  • Health Canada is collaborating with the EFSA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom to learn more about what the findings could mean to the health of consumers.
  • While any risk that might exist is considered to be very low, Health Canada is encouraging industry to identify alternative types of sealing gaskets without jeopardizing microbiological safety.

Should Health Canada identify a health risk over the course of these activities, the department will take immediate action to protect the health and safety of Canadians.