2011-2012 Targeted Survey Investigating Salmonella and Generic E. coli in Tahini and Sesame Seeds

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.

In recent years, foodborne outbreaks of salmonellosis associated with tahini have been reported worldwide. Tahini is a sesame seed-based high fat and low moisture food or food ingredient. Contaminated sesame seeds and/or cross-contamination due to poor hygiene practices during processing are believed to be the main sources and routes of contamination. If contaminated tahini is used as an ingredient in a high moisture food (e.g., hummus), the product subsequently becomes contaminated. Salmonella can survive in tahini and hummus during the shelf-life of the products and could cause illness upon consumption.

Considering the above factors and their relevance to Canadians, tahini has been selected as one of the priority food ingredients for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Over the course of five years of targeted surveys (2008/09 to 2012/13), approximately 2,500 samples of tahini and sesame seeds were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of bacterial pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2011/12 survey were to generate baseline data on bacterial pathogen Salmonella and on generic Escherichia coli (E. coli), an indicator of fecal contamination, for tahini and sesame seeds available in the Canadian market. A total of 606 samples of tahini and 595 samples of sesame seeds, including imported and domestic products, were collected and analysed. Levels of generic E. coli were found to be acceptable in all the samples, and Salmonella was not detected in any samples of sesame seeds and in the majority (99.5%) of the tahini samples. Three tahini samples (0.5%) were found to be contaminated with Salmonella and resulted in three tahini product recalls. These results suggest that the majority of tahini and sesame seeds in the Canadian market sampled during this survey were generally produced under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and/or Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). However, the results also indicate that contamination of tahini with Salmonella can occur, which could represent a food safety risk.

The CFIA regulates and provides oversight to the food 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, importers, and retail sectors are ultimately responsible for the food they produce, import, 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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