2010-2011 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Fresh Leafy Herbs

Executive Summary

The Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP) aims to modernize and enhance Canada's food safety system in order to better protect Canadians from unsafe food and ultimately reduce the occurrence of foodborne illness.

In recent years, leafy herbs have been reported to be responsible for numerous outbreaks of foodborne illness worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) has ranked leafy herbs as the highest priority in fruits and vegetables in terms of microbiological hazards. Leafy herbs can become contaminated with various foodborne pathogens in production, harvest, post-harvest handling, packaging and distribution. The presence of pathogens in leafy herbs creates a potential risk for foodborne illness as leafy herbs are often consumed raw. Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157 have been identified as the primary bacterial pathogens of concern in leafy herbs.

Considering these factors and their relevance to Canadians, leafy herbs have been selected as one of the priority commodity groups of fruits and vegetables for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Over the course of this four-year baseline study (2010/10 to 2012/13) approximately 5,000 leafy herb samples were collected from retail locations and tested for the presence of various pathogens of concern. The main objectives of the 2010/11 survey were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter and E. coli O157, and on generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) for leafy herbs available in the Canadian market. In total, 1646 samples were collected and analysed, including imported, domestic, conventional and organically grown leafy herbs.

The results of the 2010-11 survey indicate that bacterial pathogens and generic E. coli were not detected in the majority (98.8%) of the herb samples. Two samples (0.1%) were found to be contaminated with Salmonella and four samples (0.2%) had unsatisfactory levels (>1000 CFU/g) of generic E. coli. Investigations of these findings resulted in two product recalls. Furthermore, thirteen samples (0.8%) had elevated levels (100-1000 CFU/g) of generic E. coli, though no immediate action was required. These results suggest that the vast majority of fresh herbs in the Canadian market sampled during this survey were produced under Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).

The CFIA regulates and provides oversight to the industry, works with provinces and territories, and promotes safe handling of foods throughout the food production chain. However, it is important to note that the food industry and retail sectors in Canada are ultimately responsible for the food they produce and sell, while individual consumers are responsible for the safe handling of the food they have in their possession. Moreover, general advice for the consumer on the safe handling of foods is widely available. The CFIA will continue its surveillance activities and inform stakeholders of its findings.

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