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2011-2012 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. coli in Low-Moisture Foods


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, spices and dry mixes, have generally been accepted as safe products as they do not support the growth of bacterial pathogens. This assumption has been challenged in recent years by the occurrence of a number of outbreaks and recalls associated with contaminated low-moisture foods in several countries. Bacterial pathogens can be introduced in low-moisture foods via contaminated incoming ingredients or cross-contamination during processing, and survive for extended periods of time in these types of products. The presence of bacterial pathogens in dry foods creates a potential risk for foodborne illness as dry foods can be used as seasonings in ready-to-eat foods (e.g., spices, dried fruits) or reconstituted into foods that would provide conditions suitable for bacterial growth (e.g., gravy mix, powdered milk).

In view of the above information, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has selected certain low-moisture foods (i.e., spices, dried fruits, dried dairy products, cocoa powder and dry mixes) for enhanced surveillance under the FSAP. Over the course of four years of targeted surveys (2010/11 to 2013/14), approximately 4,400 samples 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 surveillance data on various bacterial pathogens of concern and on the indicator of fecal contamination generic E. coli for a variety of low-moisture foods available in the Canadian market.

A total of 1958 low-moisture foods, including spices (conventional and organic), dried fruits, dry mixes, dried dairy products and cocoa powder, were sampled at retail. Salmonella was analyzed in all the products and was detected in only one sample (organic curry powder). E. coli O157 and Shigella were also analysed in dried fruits and dry mixes (603 samples in total) and were not found in any of the samples. Additionally, Clostridium perfringens and Bacillus cereus, which are naturally present in the environment but can cause illness when present in foods in high numbers, were analysed in spices (545 samples) and were not found at levels of concern. Generic E. coli levels were also found to be acceptable in all samples tested (spices, dried fruits and dry mixes – 1148 samples in total). The Salmonella positive sample triggered appropriate follow-up procedures including the recall of the affected product. These results suggest that the vast majority of low-moisture foods sampled during this survey were produced and handled under Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).

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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