Preharvest contamination of field crops may have many sources, including feces, soil, and irrigation water. In March 2000, a sewage spill released unchlorinated tertiary-treated effluent into a creek used to irrigate commercial produce. A field of young cabbage transplants was irrigated with creek water as the contaminated water flowed past this land. Cabbage samples were taken from plots within this field, and Escherichia coli was isolated from the roots of these plants but not from the edible portion of the cabbage. No E. coli was isolated from water samples or from control samples taken from a nearby cabbage field watered with chlorinated municipal water. The cabbage field under study had not been fertilized with manure for at least 2 years prior to the contamination incident. Six different E. coli serotypes were identified, although none of them proved to be pathogenic. These serotypes were separated into five groups by a RiboPrinter; the resulting groups correlated well with the serotypes and the locations in the field from which these strains were isolated. We previously found that certain nonpathogenic E. coli strains displayed lower levels of adherence to lettuce seedling roots in a hydroponic adherence assay. The E. coli field strains displayed variable patterns of adherence to lettuce seedlings: strain MW421 showed significantly lower root and shoot adherence levels than did the other field strains, while strains MW423 and MW425 showed significantly higher root and shoot adherence levels. These data suggest that water quality is of paramount importance for the food safety of growing crops.

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