2012-2014 Bacterial Pathogens and generic E. coli in Pre-packaged Fresh-cut Ready-to-Eat Vegetables

Executive Summary

Targeted surveys are used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest health risk. The information gained from these surveys provides both support for the prioritization of the Agency's activities to areas of greater concern, and scientific evidence to address areas of lesser concern. Originally started under the Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP), targeted surveys have been incorporated into the CFIA's regular surveillance activities as a valuable tool for generating information on certain hazards in foods, identifying/characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting/refining health risk assessments, highlighting potential contamination issues, as well as assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.

In recent years, the availability of fresh-cut ready-to-eat (RTE) vegetables has increased to meet consumers' demand for convenient and healthy foods. Fresh vegetables, including fresh-cut vegetables and vegetable mixes, have been associated with several outbreaks of foodborne illnesses worldwide. Vegetables can become contaminated with pathogens during production, harvest, post-harvest handling, processing, packaging and distribution. The additional processing steps that fresh-cut vegetables go through like cutting, slicing, peeling and shredding remove or damage the protective surfaces of vegetables further increasing the possibility for microbial contamination. Since pre-packaged RTE fresh-cut vegetables are expected to be consumed raw without further preparation, the presence of pathogens creates a potential risk for foodborne illnesses.

Considering the factors mentioned above and their relevance to Canadians, pre-packaged fresh-cut RTE vegetables have been selected for enhanced surveillance. Over the course of a four-year baseline study (2012/13 to 2015/16), approximately 4,500 pre-packaged fresh-cut RTE vegetables samples (with and without dressing kits) will be collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for bacterial pathogens of concern.

The main objective of these targeted surveys (2012/13 – 2013/14) was to generate baseline surveillance data on the presence and distribution of the bacterial pathogens Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7/NM, Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes), Salmonella spp. and Shigella spp. and the indicator of fecal contamination generic E. coli, in imported and domestically produced pre-packaged fresh-cut RTE vegetables. A total of 2,679 pre-packaged fresh-cut RTE vegetable samples with and without dressing kits of both domestic and imported origin were collected. Most samples (99.7%) were assessed as satisfactory. Campylobacter spp., E. coli O157:H7/NM, Salmonella spp. and Shigella spp. were not detected in any samples. Generic E. coli levels were also acceptable for all samples. Only L. monocytogenes was detected in seven samples (0.3%). The levels detected were low (below 5 CFU (colony forming unit)/g) in six of these samples and much higher (1,300 CFU/g) in the other sample. As a result of these findings, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted food safety investigations and appropriate follow-up activities. Five products were recalled from the market place as a result of health risk assessments. It is important to note that there were no reported illnesses associated with the contaminated products sampled during these surveys.

These results suggest that the vast majority of pre-packaged fresh-cut RTE vegetables available in the Canadian market sampled during this survey were produced under Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), although sporadic contamination with L. monocytogenes can occur.

The CFIA provides regulatory oversight of 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. In addition, 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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