How is food safety determined?

Posted on April 13, 2016

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Risk assessment of all novel foods and plants


An important question that many of us may not have thought of is, how are new food products tested to be determined safe to be eaten by humans? Each year dozens of new plant varieties, novel foods or newly imported foods, are submitted for regulatory approval. All newly developed crop varieties require food safety approval, as do new to Canada products that are imported for our consumption. This is the case for all crops that are classified as genetically modified.

One myth that biotechnology critics frequently make is that GM crops have not been tested for long-term consumption effects on humans. While this is true, it is also a misleading statement. The reason this claim is misleading is that it is unethical to test any new food product on humans, thus no long-term study can be performed on humans. Would you want to sign up to eat a new food to determine what effects it might have on you? Probably not.

If GM crops, GM foods, and other new food products can’t be tested on humans, how can we be sure that these food products are safe to eat? The international standard for new food product safety testing to be orally fed to rats for 90 days. Since long-term human consumption studies don’t exist, rats take the role of humans to do this research. Why rats?

The international standard to conduct a risk assessment for new food products to determine allergenicity and toxicity effects, is to feed the product to rats for 90 days. The rats are then autopsied to examine their internal organs for signs of damage. Globally, scientists have agreed that this is the correct way to assess food risks for humans. This ensures that it is possible for all of us to know if a novel food product is harmful to humans without hurting any humans.

All new food products are tested for safety aspects. The important three are: allergenicity, toxicity, and effects on the environment.

Allergenicity testing determines the potential for the novel food to trigger an allergic reaction when consumed. Since all substances and foods are toxic at some level of consumption or exposure, toxicity testing measures what level of consumption it would take to kill someone. As an example, if you drink enough water at one time, it could kill you. Just as important as the former, testing determines what effect food production might have on the environment, particularly insects, birds and aquatic amphibians and animals.

Canada has one of the world’s leading food safety systems and it is through rigorous science-based regulations such as this that we are able to have confidence in the safety of the food products that we consume as part of our regular eating habits. While it is scientifically impossible to say that any new or existing food product is 100% safe to eat, Canada’s food safety risk assessment system is a world leader in ensuring that the food Canadians eat is as safe as it possibly can be. No new food product is ever fed to humans to determine whether it is safe for us to eat; that would just be unethical.

Please visit SAIFood for more blogs by Dr. Stuart Smyth.

Dr. Stuart Smyth
Assistant Professor, Industry Research Chair, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, U of S