It is within the mandate of Health Canada's Food Directorate to conduct food-related health risk assessments. This involves determining if the presence of a certain substance or microorganism in food (e.g., chemical contaminant, natural toxin, allergen, unapproved food additive, bacteria, virus or parasite) poses a health risk to consumers. If it is found that a substance or microorganism in food poses a human health risk, risk management actions are taken to reduce, and if possible, eliminate any risk that is posed to people that consume the food in question.
The Food Directorate conducts health risk assessments on its own initiative, based on in-house surveys of microbial pathogens and contaminants in foods or on other available data sources. The Directorate also conducts health risk assessments at the request of other groups within Health Canada as well as other government departments and agencies, including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for the enforcement of food-related standards.
New or updated risk assessments are conducted by the Food Directorate for various reasons, as discussed below.
As technology continues to expand and change, new substances, additives and ingredients, as well as foodborne pathogens may be identified in foods. Synthetic (man-made) chemicals continue to be developed for a variety of industrial and commercial uses and these chemicals can find their way into the food chain. New food growing conditions, processing techniques, equipment and packaging materials can introduce microbial pathogens and potentially harmful chemicals to foods. Furthermore, substances that are naturally present in foods are still being identified for the first time, some of which may have harmful impacts on human health. In addition, new food products, additives and ingredients in foods can permit the growth of microbial pathogens. As a result of the ever changing nature of foods, the Bureau of Chemical Safety and Bureau of Microbial Hazards are tasked to evaluate the human health risks associated with certain substances and microbial agents in foods on a regular basis.
Human health risk assessments for well-known substances and microbial agents may be updated as new information becomes available. For example, new toxicological studies that illustrate that a given compound possesses a greater or lesser health risk than previously thought would warrant an update to a previous health risk assessment. New data on the concentration of a substance in food would also require the re-evaluation of health risks, particularly if concentrations are higher than previously reported. The increasing occurrence of illness (foodborne outbreaks) associated with the consumption of certain foods contaminated with bacterial, viral, parasitic or prion-disease agents may also require that a health risk assessment be updated.
The Food Directorate regularly conducts food surveillance, research and the evaluation of scientific data. These are essential components of a risk assessment, providing a basis for developing appropriate strategies to reduce or eliminate the risk of adverse health effects resulting from the consumption of foods contaminated with microbial agents or chemical substances.
Risk management strategies vary depending on the situation. Actions range from providing advice and guidance to Canadians on the risks and benefits of particular food choices, how to safely handle foods and how to reduce contaminant levels in foods. As well, Health Canada could set microbiological standards and permissible maximum levels of contaminants in certain foods.
Recent food-related health risk assessments conducted by Health Canada's Food Directorate: