Several produce-associated outbreaks have been linked to the packing facility. Equipment surfaces may be an important source of contamination. The goal was to assess whether the microbial load of packing facility surfaces is associated with the microbial load of produce. From November 2000 to December 2003, 487 matched produce (14 types) and equipment surfaces (six production steps) were sampled from eight packing facilities in the United States near the border with Mexico and enumerated for aerobic plate counts (APC), Escherichia coli, Enterococcus, and coliforms. Bivariate correlations were assessed by Spearman's ρ, and adjusted associations were assessed by multilevel mixed linear regression models. In general, the microbial load both increased and decreased on produce (0.2 to 1.0 log CFU/g) and equipment surfaces (0.5 to 3.0 log CFU/cm2) across production steps. Equipment surface and produce microbial loads were correlated, but correlations varied from none to high depending on the equipment surface. For example, significant correlations (P < 0.01) included APC (ρ = 0.386) and Enterococcus (ρ = 0.562) with the harvest bin, E. coli (ρ = 0.372) and Enterococcus (ρ = 0.355) with the merry-go-round, Enterococcus (ρ = 0.679) with rinse cycle equipment, APC (ρ = 0.542) with the conveyer belt, and for all indicators with the packing box (ρ = 0.310 to 0.657). After controlling for crop type, sample replicate group, and sample location, there were significant positive associations between the log concentration of Enterococcus on produce and the harvest bin (β = 0.259, P < 0.01) and the rinse cycle (β = 0.010, P = 0.01), and between the log concentration of all indicators on produce and the packing box (β = 0.155 to 0.500, all P < 0.01). These statistically significant associations between microbial loads on packing facility surfaces and fresh produce confirm the importance of packing facility sanitation to protect produce quality and safety.

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