Bacillus cereus is an aerobic, spore-forming genus of bacteria that includes the species: B. anthracis, B. cereus, B. mycoides,
B. pseudomycoides, B. thuringiensis, B. weihenstephanensis, and B. Cytotoxicus.
These species are closely related, such that they could be the same species – and their toxicity ranges from benign strains used as probiotics for humans to highly toxic strains responsible for food-related illness and death.
B. cereus can cause two different types of foodborne illness: the diarrhoeal type and the emetic type.
The diarrhoeal type of foodborne illness is caused by an enterotoxin(s) produced during vegetative growth of B. cereus in the small intestine, whereas the emetic illness is caused by a toxin, preformed by B. cereus whilst growing in the food.
For both types of foodborne illness, the food involved has generally been heat treated and it is the surviving spores that are the source of the food poisoning, following germination. B. cereus tends not to be a very competitive microorganism but grows well in food following cooking and cooling (<48°C), when other organisms have been destroyed by the cooking process.
Once germinated, B. cereus cells can duplicate rapidly under optimum conditions and with no competition – doubling in numbers every 12 minutes.
As an inhabitant of the soil, B. cereus can easily spread to many food commodities, including: rice, pasta, meat, eggs and dairy.
It is a food safety hazard in products utilising any of the above ingredients and undergoing a heat treatment (followed by inadequate cooling times), such as: pies, soups, curries, stews, pasta and rice dishes.