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2011-2012 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Tomatoes in the Canadian Market


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 the last decade, fresh fruits and vegetables have been increasingly reported in association with foodborne illnesses, with tomatoes being the second most frequent vehicle for produce-associated outbreaks. Although these outbreaks have been mainly reported in the U.S., the microbiological quality of tomatoes in Canada remains a concern, as the supply sources are similar in both countries. The outbreaks associated with tomatoes have been predominantly linked to Salmonellae, followed by Norovirus and Hepatitis A. From 1990 to 2011, 31 foodborne disease outbreaks involving nearly 4,000 cases were associated with tomatoes contaminated with bacterial or viral pathogens. Production practices and growing conditions can affect the microbial load of tomatoes. Furthermore, in the past decade there has been a rapid increase in the market share for tomatoes grown using organic practices. The use of composted animal manure and plant debris in the production of organic produce has raised concerns about an increased likelihood of contamination with pathogens.

Considering these factors and their relevance to Canadians, tomatoes 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 five-year baseline study (2008/09 - 2012/13), approximately 5,000 tomato samples were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for various food pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2011/12 survey were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens Salmonella, Shigella and Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157, as well as on the indicator of fecal contamination generic E. coli, for a variety of tomatoes available in the Canadian market. A total of 1742 samples from various countries and production practices were collected and analyzed. The results indicate that bacterial pathogens were not detected in any of the tomato samples and levels of generic E. coli were always found to be acceptable. All tested samples were assessed as satisfactory. These results suggest that the tomatoes 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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