2010-2011 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Low-Moisture Foods

Executive Summary

The objective of the Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP) is 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.

Low-moisture foods, such as dried fruits, cereals, spices, dry mixes and tree nuts, have historically been considered safe products as they do not support the growth of bacterial pathogens. However, a number of outbreaks and recalls associated with contaminated low-moisture foods in recent years and in several countries have prompted many experts to question the safety of these foods in terms of microbial hazards. Low moisture foods can become contaminated with bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157 and Shigella at various stages of the production chain. The presence of these pathogens in low moisture foods and their implication in foodborne illnesses have been reported in North America and Europe.

In view of this information, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has selected certain low-moisture foods (i.e., spices, dried fruits, dried ingredients and dry mixes) for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Over the course of this baseline study (2010/11-2012/13), approximately 3,000 samples were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of bacterial pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2010/11 survey were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Shigella, as well as on the indicator of fecal contamination generic E. coli, for a variety of low-moisture foods available in the Canadian market.

A total of 822 low moisture foods 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. These results suggest that the low moisture foods sampled during this survey were produced and handled under good sanitation and hygiene practices.

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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