Variable agronomic practices, cultivar, strain source and initial contamination dose differentially affect survival of Escherichia coli on spinach

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Aims: Greenhouse and field trials were conducted under different agronomic practices and inoculum doses of environmental Escherichia coli and attenuated E. coli O157:H7, to comparatively determine whether these factors influence their survival on leaves and within the rhizosphere.

Methods and Results: Hydroponic conditions: E. coli spray-inoculated at log 4 CFU ml-1 was recovered from leaf surfaces at a mean population of 1·6 log CFU g-1 at 15 days. E. coli O157:H7 sprayed at log 2 or 4 CFU ml-1 levelled off on spinach leaf surfaces at a mean average population of 1.4 log CFU g-1 after 14 days, regardless of initial dose. Quantitative recovery was inconsistent across leaf developmental age. Field conditions: Average populations of E. coli O157:H7 spray-inoculated at log 1.45 or 3.4 CFU m-2 levelled off at log 1.2 CFU g-1 over a 14-day period. Pathogen recovery from leaves was inconsistent when compared to regularly positive detection on basal shoot tissue. Pathogen recovery from soil was inconsistent among sampling locations. Moisture content varied up to 40% DW and was associated with 50% (P < 0.05) decrease in positive locations for E. coli O157:H7 but not for E. coli. Conclusions: Overall, similar populations of environmental E. coli and E. coli O157:H7 were recovered from plants despite differences in inoculum dose and agronomic conditions. Strain source had a significant impact on the quantitative level and duration of survival on leaves and in soil. Water availability appeared to be the determinant factor in survival of E. coli and E. coli O157:H7; however, E. coli showed greater environmental fitness. Significance and Impact of the Study: Persistence of surrogate, indicator E. coli and E. coli O157:H7, irrespective of variable growing conditions in spinach is predominantly limited by water availability, strain source and localization within the plant. These findings are anticipated to ultimately be adopted into routine and investigative pathogen testing protocols and mechanical harvest practices of spinach.

E. Gutiérrez-Rodríguez
A. Gundersen
A.O. Sbodio
T.V. Suslow
Journal of Applied Microbiology