The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that foodborne disease outbreaks associated with fruits and vegetables increased during the past decade. This study was conducted to characterize the routes of microbial contamination in produce and to identify areas of potential contamination from production through postharvest handling. We report here the levels of bacterial indicator organisms and the prevalence of selected pathogens in produce samples collected from the southern United States. A total of 398 produce samples (leafy greens, herbs, and cantaloupe) were collected through production and the packing shed and assayed by enumerative tests for total aerobic bacteria, total coliforms, total Enterococcus, and Escherichia coli. These samples also were analyzed for Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O157:H7. Microbiological methods were based on methods recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For all leafy greens and herbs, geometric mean indicator levels ranged from 4.5 to 6.2 log CFU/g (aerobic plate count); less than 1 to 4.3 log CFU/g (coliforms and Enterococcus); and less than 1 to 1.5 log CFU/g (E. coli). In many cases, indicator levels remained relatively constant throughout the packing shed, particularly for mustard greens. However, for cilantro and parsley, total coliform levels increased during the packing process. For cantaloupe, microbial levels significantly increased from field through packing, with ranges of 6.4 to 7.0 log CFU/g (aerobic plate count); 2.1 to 4.3 log CFU/g (coliforms); 3.5 to 5.2 log CFU/g (Enterococcus); and less than 1 to 2.5 log CFU/g (E. coli). The prevalence of pathogens for all samples was 0, 0, and 0.7% (3 of 398) for L. monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7, and Salmonella, respectively. This study demonstrates that each step from production to consumption may affect the microbial load of produce and reinforces government recommendations for ensuring a high-quality product.

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Author notes

The use of trade names in this publication does not imply endorsement by the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service nor criticism of similar ones not mentioned.

Paper FSR 04-18 in the journal series of the Department of Food Science, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.