2014-2016 Bacterial Pathogens in Pre-Packaged, Fresh-Cut, Ready-to-Eat Vegetables

Summary

In recent years, the availability of pre-packaged, fresh-cut, ready-to-eat (RTE) vegetables has increased to meet consumers' demand for convenient and healthy foods. Unfortunately, fresh vegetables, including fresh-cut vegetables and vegetable mixes, have been associated with numerous recalls and 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 undergo such as cutting, slicing, peeling and shredding remove or damage their protective surfaces, providing a favourable environment (i.e. increased availability of nutrients, higher water activity, neutral pH) for any micro-organisms that may be present on the surface to multiply. Since pre-packaged, fresh-cut RTE vegetables are expected to be consumed raw without further preparation, the presence of bacterial pathogens creates a potential risk for foodborne illnesses.

Considering the factors mentioned above and their relevance to Canadians, pre-packaged, fresh-cut, RTE vegetables were selected for targeted surveys. The purpose of targeted surveys is to generate baseline information on the occurrence and distribution of pathogenic bacteria in food. Over the course of this study (April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2016), a total of 2675 samples were collected from retail locations in 11 cities across Canada and tested for bacterial pathogens of concern (Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157:H7)) as well as generic E. coli. Generic E. coli is an indicator of the overall sanitation conditions throughout the food production chain.

Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157:H7 and generic E. coli (>100 Most Probable Number (MPN)/g) were not found in any samples, while Listeria monocytogenes was found in six (0.22%) samples. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted appropriate follow-up activities. In three cases, due to the perishable nature of the products and the time elapsed between sample pick up and the completion of analyses, the implicated products were no longer available on the market when the pathogen was detected. Consequently, no direct product action was possible, however corrective actions were implemented by the processing facilities in two out of the three cases. In the other three cases, follow-up activities resulted in product recalls and the implementation of corrective actions by the processing facilities. There were no reported illnesses linked to the Listeria monocytogenes contaminated products.

Overall, our survey results suggest that almost all pre-packaged, fresh-cut, RTE vegetables are safe for consumption. Regardless, pre-packaged, fresh-cut, RTE vegetables are a known potential source of foodborne illness and as such, safe handling practices are recommended for producers, retailers and consumers.

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