In the United States, the proportion of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with consumption of contaminated domestic and imported fresh fruits and vegetables (produce) has increased over the past several decades. To address this public health concern, the goal of this work was to identify and quantify factors associated with microbial contamination of produce in preand postharvest phases of the farm-to-fork continuum. From 2000 to 2003, we collected 923 samples of 14 types of produce (grown in the southern United States or in the northern border states of Mexico) from 15 farms and eight packing sheds located in the southern United States. To assess microbial quality, samples were enumerated for Escherichia coli, total aerobic bacteria, total coliforms, and total Enterococcus. Most produce types had significantly higher microbial concentrations when sampled at the packing shed than when sampled at the farm. In addition, we observed seasonal differences in the microbial concentrations on samples grown in the United States, with higher mean indicator concentrations detected in the fall (September, October, and November). We developed a predictive, multivariate logistic regression model to identify and quantify factors that were associated with detectable concentrations of E. coli contamination on produce. These factors included produce type (specifically, cabbage or cantaloupe), season of collection (harvested in the fall), and packing step (bin, box, conveyor belt, or turntable). These results can be used to identify specific mechanisms of produce contamination and propose interventions that may decrease the likelihood of produce-associated illness.

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Author notes

These authors contributed equally to the work.