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2012-2014 Bacterial Pathogens and Generic E. Coli in Spices


Targeted surveys are used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest risk. The information gained from these surveys provides support for the prioritization of the Agency's activities in areas of greater concern and also scientific evidence to address areas of lesser concern. Targeted surveys have been incorporated into the CFIA's regular surveillance activities as a tool for generating essential information on certain hazards in foods, identifying/characterizing new and emerging hazards, highlighting potential contamination issues, assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations, informing trend analysis, and prompting/refining human health risk assessments.

Spices, such as ground pepper, paprika, garlic, cinnamon and chili, are generally recognized as safe foods as they do not support the growth of bacterial pathogens due to their low moisture content. This assumption has been challenged in recent years by the occurrence of a number of outbreaks and recalls associated with contaminated spices in several countries. Bacterial pathogens can be introduced in spices through contaminated incoming ingredients or by cross-contamination during processing and can survive for extended periods of time in these products. The presence of bacterial pathogens in spices creates a potential risk for foodborne illness as spices can be used as seasonings in ready-to-eat foods, and in foods that would provide conditions suitable for bacterial growth.

In view of the above information, the CFIA has selected spices for enhanced surveillance. Over four years of targeted surveys (2010/11 to 2013/14) approximately 2,400 samples have been collected from Canadian retail locations and tested for the presence of bacterial pathogens of concern.

The main objectives of the 2012/13– 2013/14 targeted surveys reviewed in this report were to generate baseline surveillance data on the bacterial pathogens Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens) and Bacillus cereus (B. cereus), as well as on generic Escherichia coli (E. coli), an indicator of fecal contamination, in a variety of spices available in the Canadian market. A total of 1,624 spice samples were collected and analyzed. The majority (99.4%) of the samples were assessed as satisfactory. Two samples (organic garlic and ground ginger) were assessed as unsatisfactory for the presence of Salmonella. The CFIA conducted appropriate follow-up activities, and both affected products were recalled. In addition to these, eight samples were assessed as investigative for elevated levels (104- 106 CFU/g) of B. cereus. Further evaluations were conducted on these samples, and one product was recalled. No reported illnesses were found to be associated with these contaminated products. The bacterial pathogen C. perfringens and generic E. coli were not found at levels of concern in any of the samples tested. These findings suggest that the spices sampled during this survey were predominantly produced and handled under Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs).

The CFIA provides regulatory oversight of 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, including importers and retailers, is ultimately responsible for the safety of the food that they produce, import and sell, while consumers are responsible for the safe handling of the food they have in their possession. The CFIA will continue its surveillance activities and inform stakeholders of its findings.

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