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2011-2012 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Fresh Leafy Herbs


The Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP) aims to modernize and strengthen 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, leafy herbs have been reported to be responsible for numerous outbreaks of foodborne illness worldwide. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) has ranked leafy herbs as the highest priority of concern among fresh fruits and vegetables in terms of microbiological hazards. Leafy herbs can become contaminated with various foodborne pathogens in the field by animals, improperly composted manure, and contaminated irrigation water during primary production. Leafy herbs can also become contaminated during harvest, post-harvest handling, packaging and distribution by infected handlers and/or poor hygiene practices. As they are often eaten raw, the presence of pathogens in leafy herbs creates a potential risk for foodborne illness.

Considering the above factors and their relevance to Canadians, leafy herbs have been selected as one of the priority commodity groups of fresh fruits and vegetables for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, over 5,000 leafy herb samples were collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of this targeted survey (2011/12) were to generate baseline surveillance data on bacterial pathogens of concern Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli O157, and Campylobacter, as well as generic E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) for leafy herbs available in the Canadian market. In total, 1540 fresh leafy herb samples were collected and analysed, including imported, domestic, conventionally and organically produced herb samples. The majority (99.3%) of the samples were assessed as satisfactory. Three samples (0.2%) were unsatisfactory; one sample was contaminated with Salmonella and two other samples had high levels of generic E. coli (> 1000 Most Probable Number (MPN)/g). Subsequent food safety investigations resulted in no product recalls. In addition, seven samples (0.5%) had elevated levels of generic E. coli (100 - 1000 MPN/g). These samples were assessed as investigative and further evaluation resulted in no immediate follow-up activities. These findings suggest that the majority of leafy herbs 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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