Food chemistry and microbiology

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The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspects, samples and tests a variety of food products under various surveillance programs. Whenever possible, samples are assessed against food safety standards that have been established by Health Canada and various international organizations, such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission. When it is determined that there is a potential health risk, corrective actions are taken. Such actions may include the following:

  • additional inspections
  • sampling and testing
  • issuance of public notices
  • removal of affected products from the marketplace

The information gained from these surveillance programs helps us determine the occurrence of contaminants in the food supply. The information also allows us to identify trends that in turn help us focus our efforts in the areas of greatest health risk for Canadians. Finally, the information also helps us gauge the effectiveness of control policies and programs, and to develop strategic plans to minimize potential health risks for consumers.

The results from these surveillance programs are published in food safety testing reports.

You can also browse the Government of Canada open data portal to search for a number of CFIA datasets relating to specific food safety testing reports.

Food chemistry

Chemical residues and contaminants may occur in foods either from their intentional use in food production (for example, veterinary drugs, pesticides, food additives) or by unintentional contamination from the environment, during processing, or due to the presence of natural toxins.

The surveillance program of the CFIA consists of 3 well-defined components:

  • monitoring sampling, which is used for the National Chemical Residue Monitoring Program (NCRMP) and targeted surveys
  • directed sampling, which focuses on identified chemical contamination issues
  • compliance sampling, which seeks removal of food in violation of standards from the marketplace

The food chemistry monitoring programs include the NCRMP, targeted surveys and the Children Food Project. The objectives of these programs are to:

  • verify compliance with Canadian maximum levels for chemical residues and contaminants
  • identify trends and develop strategic plans to minimize potential health risks to the public
  • collect baseline data on the presence and levels of chemical hazards in food products available in the Canadian market
  • support international trade and demonstrate equivalency with Canada's trading partners

Limits for chemical residues and contaminants

Maximum residue limits (MRLs), maximum levels (MLs), guidelines, standards and tolerances are limits established by Health Canada to minimize potential health risks to Canadians from excessive exposure to chemical residues and contaminants in foods and are set well below levels that would be a concern for consumers.

We test a variety of foods available in Canada for chemical residues and contaminants. When the results show that levels are above the established limits, results are referred to Health Canada for a risk assessment. Based on the outcome, we make a final decision on whether further action, such as product seizure or recall, is necessary.

Limits are set at levels far below the amount that could pose a health concern. This is why foods with residues or contaminants over maximum limits can still be safe for consumption. In simple terms, limits can be described as traffic lights. When levels of residues or contaminants exceed limits, the traffic light turns yellow, indicating caution and the need for further assessment. That assessment determines if the food is unsafe (red light) or safe (green light).

Additional information

Health Canada and the CFIA share responsibility for ensuring that Canada's food supply is safe.

CFIA is responsible for the surveillance of chemical residues in foods and their adherence to Canadian Regulations.

Health Canada registers and regulates agricultural chemicals, including pest control products, veterinary drugs and food additives. Under the authority of the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations, Health Canada sets the MRL of chemicals in food products and establishes maximum allowable levels for environmental and industrial pollutants in food.

Food microbiology

CFIA operates a National Microbiological Monitoring Program (NMMP) and a targeted surveys program. Under both programs, a wide variety of domestic and imported products are randomly selected and tested for microbial organisms. The goals of these programs include:

  • assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations and food safety standards
  • monitoring the effectiveness of the various food safety controls, policies and programs in place
  • identifying and characterizing new and emerging hazards
  • informing trend analysis, and prompting and refining health risk assessments
  • supporting international trade and demonstrating equivalency with Canada's trading partners

Testing includes a variety of microbial organisms including pathogens such as Escherichia coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella as well as viruses and parasites and other indicator bacteria such as generic Escherichia coli.

Additional information