Collaborating for safer food and stronger agriculture

February 2024 | Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada | by Emma Dickinson and CJ Forneste

We all know that fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. These crops are also used to make foods like juices, cereals and pasta, and feed the animals that add eggs, meat and dairy to our diets. Pesticides play an important role in controlling the impact that insects, weeds and fungal diseases can have on these crops, and help Canada maintain its status as a leading global supplier of food products.

Washing peppers under running water.

Washing peppers under running water.

But how do we make sure that pesticide residues that may be on or in our food are safe for us to eat?

Collaboration is key

The Government of Canada takes a scientific and risk-based approach to pesticide regulation that is consistent with international standards. A pesticide is approved in Canada only if scientific evidence shows that it meets Health Canada's requirements for the protection of human health and the environment. This approach is similar to how Canada regulates other types of chemicals we come into contact with, like cleaning products, cosmetics, medicines, fabrics and fuels.

Safe and effective pesticide use is a shared commitment between growers, industry, provinces, and the federal departments and agencies that help to protect the health of people living in Canada, the environment and our food supply.

Scientific assessment and registration

Before any pesticide can be used on food products in Canada, the pesticide is closely studied by scientists at Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). PMRA scientists evaluate any risks it could pose to human and environmental health by determining toxicity and conducting a risk assessment. These risk assessments look at the diets of people in Canada and how the pesticide may be ingested. This includes considering vulnerable populations like infants, children, seniors and pregnant people, so that we have a complete view of how a pesticide could impact our food and health.

PMRA sets legal and enforceable limits known as a maximum residue limit (MRL) for the different combinations of pesticides and foods, or crops, in Canada. The MRL is the highest amount of pesticide residue that is permitted to remain on or in food when a pesticide is used according to label directions. MRLs reflect how a pesticide should be used – they are not a measurement of pesticide toxicity or safety. MRLs are set well below a level that would harm human health. Want to look up MRLs for common pesticides and food commodities? Check out Health Canada’s searchable MRL database.

A product can only be registered for use in Canada if the scientific evidence shows that a pesticide is effective and meets Health Canada's requirements. Labels for pesticide products are periodically amended to add a new use or change the conditions of use to control a pest. These changes are made only if health and environmental requirements continue to be met. In addition, pesticides are periodically re-evaluated to make sure that the risks and value continue to meet Health Canada requirements.

Monitoring and compliance

Canada’s strong food safety system means that chemical contaminants in food are typically very low, however, we must continue to monitor our food to ensure that any chemicals detected do not exceed levels considered safe for human health.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for monitoring foods in Canada for pesticides and other chemical residues, and for enforcing the MRLs set by PMRA. The CFIA conducts the National Chemical Residue Monitoring Program (NCRMP) each year to check that food meets Canadian standards and guidelines for chemical residues and contaminants, including pesticides. The foods tested are both grown in Canada and imported, and come from 8 different commodity groups:

  • fresh fruit and vegetables
  • processed fruit and vegetables
  • meat
  • fish and seafood
  • dairy
  • eggs
  • honey
  • maple products

In addition, the CFIA carries out targeted surveys to focus and prioritize its surveillance activities on areas of greater concern. Targeted surveys are a valuable tool for:

  • generating information on certain hazards in foods;
  • identifying and characterizing new and emerging hazards;
  • informing trend analyses;
  • prompting and refining health risk assessments;
  • highlighting potential contamination issues; and,
  • assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.

The annual Pesticide Targeted Surveys complement the NCRMP by focusing on finished foods (for example, frozen dinners and soups) and on ingredients (for example, spices and wheat flour).

The Children’s Food Project is also carried out annually, which tests foods targeted at infants, toddlers and children under 15 years of age for pesticide residues. This age group is particularly vulnerable to possible health effects due to their lower body mass (compared to adults) and their distinct consumption patterns.

Every year, results show that the vast majority of commodities tested are compliant, including fresh fruits and vegetables both grown in Canada and imported. Based on the 2020-2021 NCRMP report, 99% of fruits and vegetables grown in Canada and 94% of imported fruits and vegetables had pesticide residue levels below the set MRLs.

Why the difference between domestic and imported fruits and vegetables? This is typically because our trading partners have different growing conditions and pest concerns than Canadian growers. As a result, many trading partners in southern climates use different pesticides than what we have registered for use in Canada. For detected pesticide residues with no established Canadian MRLs, a default MRL of 0.1 parts per million (ppm) is used to assess compliance. The default MRL is purposely set to be conservatively low for any products not registered for use in Canada. This is why these lower compliance rates do not necessarily mean that imported fruits and vegetables are less safe for Canadians to eat.

The results of the NCRMP help the CFIA identify trends and areas of potential concern to optimize surveillance activities and control measures that keep Canadian consumers protected. They also support international recognition of a safe and healthy food supply which facilitates market access for Canadian exports. Any residues found that are above the allowed limit are investigated by the CFIA, and follow-up actions are taken according to the magnitude of the health risk.

This data is routinely shared with the PMRA for risk assessment and management and to set or update standards. It is also shared with Canada’s major trading partners, including the United States and the European Union, to support the trade of food products.

From orchard to table

Let’s follow a tasty Canadian apple from orchard to table to explain the relationship between the PMRA and the CFIA in pesticide management.

Just as apple farmers make sure their apple trees receive enough water, sunlight and nutrients, they also have to protect them from pests and disease, including regulated pests like apple maggot. This apple farmer could only choose a pesticide registered by the PMRA for use in Canada. They would follow safety precautions and instructions on the label to maximize benefits while protecting themselves and the environment. When used correctly, the pesticide can help protect the trees so more apples can grow.

Once that apple is picked, it may end up in the produce section of your grocery store, or processed into another product, like apple juice, apple pies, or apple purees for infants. The fresh apple or its products may be selected by the CFIA for testing to verify that pesticide residues detected, if any, are below the MRL. The apple or its products would make their way to one of several laboratories used by the CFIA for pesticide residue testing, such as the CFIA’s Calgary Laboratory, for analysis by food safety scientists.

According to the 2020-21 NCRMP results, 100% of Canadian-grown apples and 100% of Canadian processed fruit products tested were compliant with Canadian standards. This means that there is a very good chance any particular Canadian apple will not have pesticide residues above the MRLs, and you can take a nutritious bite with confidence!

By working together, the PMRA and CFIA provide a comprehensive system of checks and balances to keep Canadians safe from any potentially harmful impacts of pesticides in our food while supporting our thriving agriculture and agri-food industry.

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