2012-2014 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Fresh Leafy Herbs

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, highlighting potential contamination issues as well as assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.

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 of concern among fresh fruits and vegetables in terms of microbiological hazards. Leafy herbs can become contaminated with various foodborne pathogens in the field by animals, improperly composted manure, and contaminated irrigation water during primary production. Leafy herbs can also become contaminated during harvest, post-harvest handling, packaging and distribution by infected handlers and/or poor hygiene practices. As they are often eaten raw, the presence of pathogens in leafy herbs creates a potential risk for foodborne illness.

Considering the above factors and their relevance to Canadians, leafy herbs have been selected as one of the priority commodity groups of fresh fruits and vegetables for enhanced surveillance. Over the course of five years (2009/10-2013/14) of targeted surveys on leafy herbs, approximately 7,000 leafy herb samples were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2012/13 and 2013/14 targeted surveys were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens of concern Salmonella, Shigella, Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7/NM (non-motile), and Campylobacter, as well as generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) for leafy herbs available in the Canadian market. In total, 2,472 fresh leafy herb samples were collected and analysed. The majority (99.5%) of the samples were assessed as satisfactory. Eight samples (0.3%) were unsatisfactory; one sample was contaminated with Salmonella and seven other samples had high levels of generic E. coli (> 1,000 Most Probable Number (MPN)/g). Subsequent food safety investigations, including an establishment inspection and product testing resulted in no product recalls as the products were not considered to represent a health risk due to various factors including its highly perishable nature. It is important to note that there were no reported illnesses associated with consumption of any of the Salmonella contaminated product during this survey. In addition, five samples (0.2%) had elevated, yet marginally acceptable, levels of generic E. coli (100 – 1,000 MPN/g). These samples were assessed as investigative and further evaluation resulted in no immediate follow-up activities. These findings suggest that the majority of leafy 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 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. 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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