Risk Assessment and Traditional Food Consumption

Posted: October 19, 2017 News

Traditional foods play an important nutritional, social, cultural and economic role for Indigenous Peoples in Canada.  This is particularly true in isolated northern communities where access to store-bought, nutrient-rich foods may be limited due to a lack of availability, lower quality and/or high costs.

Traditional food refers to those foods that are harvested from the local environment, including small and large game, birds, fish, and plants.  Diets that include traditional foods are typically of greater nutritional quality than those of market foods alone.  In addition, the act of capturing, sharing, processing and consuming traditional food and the knowledge transfer involved with the harvest, contribute greatly to individual and community well-being.

Over the last few decades there has been a shift in many Indigenous communities from a diet based in traditional foods to one where market foods are prominent.  Reasons for the shift include concerns regarding food safety and environmental contamination in addition to the greater availability of market foods.  As industrial development increases near northern Indigenous communities, concerns have been raised regarding the quality and safety of traditional foods.  Industrial practices, which at times includes upsets or malfunctions, can release chemical contaminants into the environment that may affect food quality.  These factors, in combination with food consumption advisories issued by the government, have contributed to a perception of risk and, for some, distrust in the safety of traditional food consumption.

Risk assessment focusing on food quality has played a vital role in the investigation of the potential for actual health risks and has provided assurances regarding the safety of traditional food consumption; or if necessary, provided recommendations as to acceptable consumption rates for which specific traditional food items may be consumed in order to limit the potential for health risks.  For instance, organ tissues such as the liver or kidneys of wild game tend to accumulate higher concentrations of metals when compared to muscle tissue.  A risk assessment may take into account the differences in concentrations between tissue media in combination with community-specific consumption rates and chemical toxicity information to characterize the potential for human health risks.  If risks exist, acceptable rates of consumption can be derived according to the concentrations measured in the harvested game organs.  Rather than limiting all consumption, the results may indicate that organ consumption should be restricted to a certain amount per season or year, while muscle may be consumed without restriction (often at rates significantly greater than those reported by the affected communities).  Results are typically presented by life stage (e.g. adult, toddler, women of child-bearing age).

In certain cases, First Nations have expressed concern regarding the taste of fish harvested from local waterbodies and the potential that the altered taste may be due to contamination from nearby industrial activities.  Based on a comprehensive sampling, analytical and risk assessment program, Intrinsik was able to identify the probable cause and attribute the taint in taste to metabolic products released from algal blooms.

Traditional foods play a crucial role in the sociocultural, nutritional and economic well-being of Indigenous communities.  As such, it is important that access to such foods is not inhibited by a perception of risk, but that the potential for actual risks be investigated and communicated clearly to maintain the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples.

Intrinsik Corp., Bloggers:  Mr. Christopher Ng, M.Env.Sc., Environmental Risk Assessor and Ms. Claire McAuley, M.Eng.,M.Sc.,P.Eng, Senior Scientist

For further information, please contact Ms. Claire McAuley at moc.k1632701872isnir1632701872tni@y1632701872eluac1632701872mc1632701872.

Additional sources of information:

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Dieticians of Canada: Community Food Security – Positions of Dieticians of Canada. Public Policy Statement 2007 [https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Public/cfs-position-paper.aspx].
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