Bacterial Pathogens and Indicators in Plant-based Ice Cream Alternatives - April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2022
Food microbiology – Targeted surveys – Final report
A 3-year targeted surveyFootnote 1 analysed 714 samples of plant-based ice cream alternatives for the presence of the pathogens Salmonella species (spp.), and Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes). All samples were also tested for total coliforms and Aerobic Colony Count (ACC) which are indicators of the overall hygienic and sanitary conditions of the food supply chain from production to the point of sale.
Over 99.4% of the samples tested were found to be satisfactory. Salmonella spp. was not found in any of the samples. L. monocytogenes was detected in 1 of the 714 (0.1%) samples. Total coliforms at elevated levels were found in 3 of the 714 (0.4%) samples of which 2 of the 714 (0.3%) also contained ACC at elevated levels. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted appropriate follow-up activities. There were no reported illnesses related to these products.
Overall, our survey results indicate that plant-based ice cream alternatives sold in Canada are generally safe for consumption, however they can occasionally be contaminated. Consequently, as with all foods, and especially with those that are ready-to-eat (RTE), good hygienic practices are recommended for producers, retailers, and consumers.
Why was this survey conducted
The survey was conducted to generate baseline information on the quality and safety of plant-based ice cream alternatives sold at retail in Canada.
The consumption of plant-based ice cream alternatives has a long history in many parts of the worldFootnote 2 . However, in recent years they have grown in popularity and a wide variety of products have appeared on the Canadian retail marketplaceFootnote 3.
Contamination with bacterial pathogens can occur at any step in the food supply chain such as during production, processing, and/or packaging. The production process involves a heat treatment step to destroy any bacterial pathogens that may be presentFootnote 4, however, if this step is inadequate or if contamination occurs after processing, there is a potential for foodborne illness as these products are RTE.
When was the survey conducted
The survey was conducted over a 3-year period from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2022.
Where were the samples collected from
Samples were collected from national retail chains and local/regional grocery stores located in the following 11 major cities across Canada:
- Quebec City
The planned number of samples to be collected from each city was based on the population of the province in which the city was located relative to the total population of Canada.
How many and what kind of samples were collected
A total of 714 plant-based ice cream alternative samples were collected. A sample consisted of a single or multiple consumer sized packages of the same lot weighing at least 250g.
What were the samples tested for
All samples were tested for Salmonella spp., L. monocytogenes, total coliforms, and ACC. Salmonella spp., and L. monocytogenes are pathogenic bacteria while total coliforms and ACC are indicators of the overall hygienic and sanitary conditions under which the samples have been produced, processed, stored, and transported.
What methods were used to test the samples
Samples were analyzed using analytical methods published in Health Canada's Compendium of Analytical Methods for the Microbiological Analysis of FoodsFootnote 5 that were appropriate for the testing of plant-based ice cream alternatives.
How were the samples assessed
The samples were assessed using criteria based on the principles of Health Canada's Health Products and Food Branch Standards and Guidelines for Microbiological Safety of Food – An Interpretive SummaryFootnote 6, Policy on Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat FoodsFootnote 7, and the Food and Drugs ActFootnote 8 (Section 4(1)).
|Salmonella spp.||Not detected||Not applicable||Detected|
|L. monocytogenes||Not detected||≤ 102 CFU/g||>102 CFU/g|
|Total coliforms||≤ 103 CFU or MPN/g||> 103 CFU or MPN/g||Not applicable|
|ACC||≤ 106 CFU/g||> 106 CFU/g||Not applicable|
No assessment guidelines had been established in Canada for the presence of Salmonella spp.or indicator organisms in plant-based ice cream alternatives at the time of writing this report.
As Salmonella spp. is considered pathogenic to humans its presence was assessed as unsatisfactory as it is considered to be a violation of the Food and Drugs Act Section 4(1)a.
Unlike bacterial pathogens, total coliform strains are harmless. Similarly, ACC which is the total number of generally harmless bacteria that are able to grow in an oxygenated (aerobic) environment. Both total coliforms and ACC are considered to be indicators of the microbial quality of food. Total coliforms and ACC are indicators of the conditions under which a food is produced, processed, packaged, and stored. Their levels in a food product are used to assess the overall sanitation conditions throughout the food chain from production to the point of sale. Their presence at some levels is tolerated, however elevated levels were assessed as investigative, possibly resulting in further follow-up actions.
What were the survey results
Over 99.4% of the samples tested were found to be satisfactory. Salmonella spp. was not found in any of the samples. L. monocytogenes was detected in 1 of the 714 (0.1%) samples. Total coliforms at elevated levels (>103 CFU or MPN/g) were found in 3 of the 714 (0.4%) samples of which 2 of the 714 (0.3%) also contained ACC at elevated levels (>106 CFU/g).
|Bacterial analysis||Number of samples tested||Satisfactory (%)||Investigative (%)||Unsatisfactory|
|Salmonella spp.||714||710||Not applicable||0|
|L. monocytogenes||1 Table Note a||0|
|Total coliforms||3 Table Note b||Not applicable|
|ACC||2 Table Note b||Not applicable|
|Total||714||710 (99.4)||4 (0.6)||0|
Survey results are also presented by the product's production practice (table 3), origin (table 4), main ingredient(s) (table 5), and flavour (table 6).
|Production practice||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Origin||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Unknown Table Note c||96 (13.5)||95||1|
|Unknown Table Note c (domestically processed) Table Note d||88 (12.3)||86||2|
|Main ingredient(s)||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Cashew and coconut||2 (0.3)||2||0|
|Faba bean||22 (3.1)||22||0|
|Flavour||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Chocolate Chip||13 (1.8)||13||0|
|Cookie Dough||31 (4.3)||31||0|
|Peanut butter||63 (8.8)||63||0|
|Other Table Note e||31 (4.3)||30||1|
What do the survey results mean
No previously published studies on the microbiological quality or safety of plant-based ice cream alternatives were found at the time of writing this report.
Overall, our survey results indicate that plant-based ice cream alternatives sold in Canada is generally safe for consumption, however they can occasionally be contaminated. Consequently, as with all foods, and especially with those that are RTE, good hygienic practices are recommended for producers, retailers and consumers.
What is done with the survey results
All results are used to:
- inform risk management decisions
- support program design and re-design
No illnesses were associated with the investigative L. monocytogenes positive sample. The investigative samples triggered appropriate follow-up activities which may have included:
- on-site visit of the manufacturer
- review of documented procedures (hygiene, sanitation) and records
- review of production and distribution records
- review of previous laboratory test results
Can I access the survey data
Yes. The data will be accessible on the Open Government Portal.
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