2011-2012 Targeted Survey Investigating Bacteria of Concern in Fresh Berries

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.

Fresh berries have been reported to be responsible for several outbreaks of foodborne illness around the world. A joint FAO/WHO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations / World Health Organization) Expert Meeting in 2007 classified berries in the second highest priority group of concern among fresh fruits and vegetables in terms of microbiological hazards. Berries can be exposed to foodborne pathogens in the field through contaminated irrigation water, improperly composted manure or contact with animals, as well as during picking, packing, and transportation. Berries are unique as their small size and delicate structure not only require harvest by hand by a large number of workers, thus increasing the risk of being contaminated by an infected individual, but also generally precludes washing before sale, so as not to shorten their shelf-life.

Considering the above factors and their relevance to Canadians, berries have been selected as one of the priority commodity groups of fresh fruits and vegetables for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Over the course of a four-year baseline study (2009/10 - 2012/13), over 3,200 samples of berries were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of various pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2011/12 survey were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli O157:H7, as well as on generic E. coli (an indicator of faecal contamination), in imported and domestically produced fresh berries available in the Canadian market. A total of 200 imported and 304 domestic samples of fresh berries were collected at retail. No pathogens were detected in any of the samples tested, and levels of generic E. coli were always found to be acceptable. All the samples were assessed as satisfactory and did not require any further action by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). These results suggest that the berries tested 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, 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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