2012-2014 Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Generic E. coli in Tahini

Executive Summary

Targeted surveys are used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest 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 essential information on certain hazards in foods, identifying/characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting/refining human health risk assessments, assessing compliance with Canadian regulations, highlighting potential contamination issues, and promoting compliance.

In recent years, foodborne outbreaks of salmonellosis associated with tahini have been reported worldwide. Tahini is a sesame seed-based processed low moisture food or food ingredient. Contaminated sesame seeds and/or cross-contamination due to poor hygiene practices during processing are believed to be the main sources and routes of contamination. Once contaminated, Salmonella can survive in tahini during the shelf-life and could cause illness upon consumption. If contaminated tahini is used as an ingredient, the tahini-based products subsequently become contaminated. In addition, contamination of tahini with Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes) is also a safety concern as this bacterium is widely distributed in the environment and can survive and/or grow in tahini-based high moisture foods under refrigeration conditions.

Considering the above factors and their relevance to Canadians, tahini has been selected as one of the food ingredients for enhanced surveillance. Over the course of four years of targeted surveys on tahini (2010/11 to 2013/14), approximately 2,400 samples of tahini were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of bacterial pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2012/13 and 2013/14 surveys were to generate baseline data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella and L. monocytogenes, and on generic Escherichia coli (E. coli), an indicator of fecal contamination, for tahini available in the Canadian market. In a total of 1166 tahini samples analyzed, L. monocytogenes was not detected in any of the samples, levels of generic E. coli were found to be acceptable in all the samples and Salmonella was found in four tahini samples (0.3%). These unsatisfactory findings resulted in four products recalls. The survey results suggest that the majority of tahini in the Canadian market sampled during these surveys were produced under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and/or Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). However, the results also indicate that contamination of tahini with Salmonella can occur, which could represent a food safety risk.

The CFIA regulates and provides oversight to the food 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, importers, and retail sectors are ultimately responsible for the food they produce, import, 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 the Canadian public and stakeholders of its findings.

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