ABSTRACT

The desire for local, fresh produce year round is driving the growth of hydroponic growing systems in the United States. Many food crops, such as leafy greens and culinary herbs, grown within hydroponics systems have their root systems submerged in recirculating nutrient-dense fertilizer solutions from planting through harvest. If a foodborne pathogen were introduced into this water system, the risk of contamination to the entire crop would be high. Hence, this study was designed to determine whether Escherichia coli O157:H7, non-O157 Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, and Salmonella were able to survive and reproduce in two common hydroponic fertilizer solutions and in water or whether the bacteria would be killed or suppressed by the fertilizer solutions. All the pathogens grew by 1 to 6 log CFU/ml over a 24-h period, depending on the solution. E. coli O157:H7 reached higher levels in the fertilizer solution with plants (3.12 log CFU/ml), whereas non-O157 Shiga toxin–producing E. coli and Salmonella reached higher levels in the fertilizer solution without plants (1.36 to 3.77 log CFU/ml). The foodborne pathogens evaluated here survived for 24 h in the fertilizer solution, and populations grew more rapidly in these solutions than in plain water. Therefore, human pathogens entering the fertilizer solution tanks in hydroponic systems would be expected to rapidly propagate and spread throughout the system and potentially contaminate the entire crop.

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