2010-2011 Bacteria of Concern in Green Onions

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.

Green onions have been reported to be responsible for several outbreaks of foodborne illness in North America. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) has ranked green onions in the second highest priority group of concern in terms of microbiological hazards among fresh fruits and vegetables. Often eaten raw, green onions are subject to extensive handling during and after harvest where pathogens of concern can be introduced at any step in the production. Salmonella, Shigella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157 have been identified as the primary bacterial pathogens of concern in green onions.

Considering these factors and their relevance to Canadians, green onions 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 this four-year baseline study (2010/11 to 2013/14), approximately 4,500 green onion samples will be collected from retail locations and tested for the presence of various pathogens of concern. The main objectives of this targeted survey (2010/11) were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella, Shigella and E. coli O157, and on generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) for green onions available in the Canadian market. In total, 591 samples of green onions (imported and domestic, conventional and organically grown) were collected and tested.

The results of the 2010/11 survey indicate that bacterial pathogens and generic E. coli were not detected in the majority (99.7%) of the green onion samples. A very small fraction (0.2%) of the green onion samples was found to be contaminated with Salmonella. One product recall resulted from the findings of the food safety investigation. In addition, one sample was found to have elevated, yet marginally acceptable, levels of generic E. coli. These results suggest that most green onions in the Canadian market sampled during this survey were produced under Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (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, 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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