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J Food Prot. 2009 Nov;72(11):2313-20.

Effects of plant maturity and growth media bacterial inoculum level on the surface contamination and internalization of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in growing spinach leaves.

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Department of Food Science, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, USA.


The incidence of foodborne outbreaks linked to fresh produce has increased in the United States. Particularly noteworthy was the 2006 Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with prepackaged baby spinach. This study aimed to determine whether E. coli O157:H7 would be present in the aerial leaf tissue of a growing spinach plant when introduced at various plant maturities and different inoculum levels in a greenhouse setting. Spinach seeds of a commercial variety were sown in 8-in. (20.32-cm) pots. After seed germination, two levels (10(3) and 10(7) CFU/ml) of an E. coli O157:H7 green fluorescent protein-expressing strain were introduced into the plant growth media weekly for a total of five times. Inoculated spinach plants were examined weekly for the presence of E. coli O157:H7 on leaves and in surrounding growth media. Among 120 spinach plant samples examined for internal leaf contamination, only one yielded a positive result. Surface leaf contamination occurred occasionally and clustered between 3 and 5 weeks of age, but not among leaves younger than 3 weeks of age. On the other hand, when inoculated at the 10(7) CFU/ml level, the E. coli O157:H7 green fluorescent protein strain survived the entire cultivation period, although with gradually reduced levels. The experiments demonstrated that internalization of E. coli O157:H7 of growing spinach plant leaves under greenhouse conditions was a rare event, but surface contamination did occur, primarily when the plants reached 3 weeks of age. The study provided important data to further assess the association between spinach age and potential contamination of E. coli O157:H7.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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