Bacterial Pathogens and Indicators in Plant-based Cheese Alternatives - April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2022
Food microbiology – Targeted surveys – Final report
A 3-year targeted surveyFootnote 1 analysed 556 samples of plant-based cheese alternatives for the presence of the pathogens Salmonella species (spp.), Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes), and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). All samples were also tested for generic Escherichia coli (E. coli) which is an indicator of the overall hygienic and sanitary conditions of the food supply chain from production to the point of sale.
Over 99.2% of the samples tested were found to be satisfactory. Salmonella spp., L. monocytogenes, and S. aureus (>104 CFU/g) were not found in any of the samples. E. coli at elevated levels were found in 4 of the 556 (0.7%) samples. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) conducted appropriate follow-up activities.
Overall, our survey results indicate that plant-based cheese alternatives sold in Canada are generally safe for consumption. However, 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 cheese alternatives sold at retail in Canada. Unfortunately, these foods have been associated with recallsFootnote 2,Footnote 3, and foodborne illness outbreaksFootnote 4,Footnote 5,Footnote 6.
The consumption of plant-based cheese alternatives has a long history in many parts of AsiaFootnote 7. However, in recent years they have grown in popularity and a wide variety of products have appeared on the Canadian retail marketplaceFootnote 8.
Contamination with bacterial pathogens can occur at any step in the food supply chain such as during production, processing, and/or packaging. Consequently, if pathogens are present, there is a potential for foodborne illness as plant-based cheese alternatives 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 556 refrigerated plant-based cheese 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, S. aureus and generic E. coli. Salmonella spp., L. monocytogenes, and S. aureus are pathogenic bacteria while generic E. coli is an indicator 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 9 that were appropriate for the testing of plant-based cheese 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 10, Policy on Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-to-Eat FoodsFootnote 11, the Food and Drugs ActFootnote 12 (Section 4(1)) and guidelines developed by international food safety authoritiesFootnote 13,Footnote 14.
|Salmonella spp.||Not detected||Not applicable||Detected|
|L. monocytogenes||Not detected|
|S. aureus||≤ 104 CFU/g||> 104 CFU/g||Not applicable|
|Generic E. coli||≤ 102 CFU or MPN/g||> 102 CFU or MPN/g||Not applicable|
No assessment guidelines had been established in Canada for the presence of Salmonella spp., S. aureus or indicator organisms in plant-based cheese 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 ActFootnote 12 Section 4(1)a.
S. aureus can produce toxins capable of causing foodborne illness and therefore their presence at elevated levels was assessed as investigative, possibly resulting in further follow-up actions.
Unlike bacterial pathogens, most strains of generic E. coli are harmless. Generic E. coli is considered to be an indicator organism as their levels present 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 99.2% of the samples tested were found to be satisfactory. Salmonella spp., L. monocytogenes, and S. aureus (> 104 CFU/g) were not found in any of the samples. Generic E. coli at elevated levels (>102 CFU or MPN/g) were found in 4 of the 556 (0.7%) samples.
|Bacterial analysis||Number of samples tested||Satisfactory (%)||Investigative (%)||Unsatisfactory|
|Salmonella spp.||556||552||Not applicable||0|
|S. aureus||0||Not applicable|
|Generic E. coli||4||Not applicable|
|Total||556||552 (99.3)||4 (0.7)||0|
Survey results are also presented by the product's production practice (table 3), origin (table 4), main ingredient(s) (table 5), and format (table 6).
|Production practice||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Origin||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Unknown Table Note b||16 (2.9)||16||0|
|Unknown Table Note b (domestically processed) Table Note c||255 (45.9)||251||4|
|Main ingredient(s)||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
|Butter bean, oat||3||3||0|
|Cashew, chickpea, coconut oil or cream||8||8||0|
|Cashew, cocoa butter, coconut oil||2||2||0|
|Cashew, coconut oil||57||57||0|
|Cashew, coconut oil, almond||7||7||0|
|Coconut oil, soybean||6||6||0|
|Oat flour, coconut oil||2||2||0|
|Palm oil, soybean oil||11||11||0|
|Soybean oil and milk||5||5||0|
|Soybean milk, coconut oil||1||1||0|
|Soy, corn or palm oil||3||3||0|
|Soy, palm and olive oils||11||11||0|
|Sunflower seed, navy bean, coconut oil||1||1||0|
|Format||Number of samples tested (%)||Satisfactory||Investigative|
What do the survey results mean
No previously published studies on the microbiological quality or safety of plant-based cheese alternatives were found at the time of writing this report.
Overall, our survey results indicate that plant-based cheese alternatives sold in Canada is generally safe for consumption. However, 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
The investigative samples triggered appropriate follow-up activities which may have included:
- on-site visit of the manufacturer
- review of manufacturer production and sanitation practices
- review of records and inspection of equipment and establishment conditions
Can I access the survey data
Yes. The data will be accessible on the Open Government Portal.
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