Examining foods through a scientific lens: a look at Health Canada’s radiating food research

When most of us channel our inner food critic, we might evaluate dishes based on consistency or taste, but radioactivity? Probably not! Some scientists, on the other hand, make it their life’s work.

Monitoring for a safe food supply

Everything we eat is naturally radioactive but there’s no need to fret; we need to eat these foods to stay alive and our bodies have evolved to deal with this. Bananas, for example, contain a lot of potassium which also happens to be 0.01 % radioactive.

However, not all radioactivity is from natural sources; hospitals, nuclear plants and some industries can all release radioactivity. That’s where the work of the Health Canada Radiation Protection Bureau’s National Monitoring Section (NMS) team comes in. Led by Dr. Jean-François Mercier, the NMS team makes sure the levels of radiation in our food supply remain within normal ranges.

Out of their laboratory in Ottawa, the NMS team regularly monitors radiation in the environment. This includes food and drink samples from across the country such as milk, water, red meats, mushrooms, and berries. The laboratory is equipped to measure the three main types of radioactivity – alpha, beta and gamma – in all kinds of different samples (soil, air, food matters, etc.). “This monitoring helps us establish baseline radiation levels present in our environment and our food supply,” explained Dr. Jean Francois Mercier. “It can also allow us to detect the impact of new sources of radioactivity, for example forest fires freeing up radionuclides captured in the trees or a nuclear test from a foreign nation.”

In addition to its regular monitoring, the NMS team also participates in the annual Canadian Total Diet Study (TDS), which looks at more than 2000 individual food items. As part of this study, various Health Canada scientists, including some from the NMS team, examine the foods to ensure they do not pose any risks to Canadians when cooked and eaten like you would at home.

Keeping track of the world environment

Because many of the foods Canadians eat on a daily basis are imported from other countries, there is also an international component to the work of the NMS team.

“The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) monitors Canadian imports and we work with them to ensure the safety, from a radiological perspective, of the food that will come into the country. On the other hand, several countries require official certification that the food they import is not contaminated with radiation. Because of the regular monitoring that we already do, we are able to help Canadian exporters obtain these certifications,” says Dr. Jean-François Mercier.

As radioactivity knows no bounds, the NMS team tracks nuclear incidents from around the world. In 2011, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, radioactive air particles only took a few days to make their way to Canada. However, 80% of the contamination from the disaster made its way into the Pacific Ocean and took several years to reach the Canadian coast. In response to this incident, the NMS team worked with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2012 to test over 80 types of foods, including processed products, fish and seafood and grain products, imported from Japan. Health Canada also changed the TDS study city that year to Vancouver and adapted the study to include several imports from Japan. Fortunately, the scientists concluded that none of the foods items that they examined contained harmful levels of radiation.

To deal with longer-term concerns, the NMS team joined Fukushima Inform, a network of stakeholders assessing radiological risks to Canada’s oceans following the Fukushima disaster. Part of the NMS’ role was to analyze salmon samples every year to see if the Fukushima accident would affect the levels of artificial radiation in salmon. The multi-year study shows that only a few samples did have traces of radiation from the nuclear accident, and that the levels recorded were far below those considered harmful. This came as a sigh of relief for many fish eaters across the country!