The influence of wash water quality on the microbial load and sensory quality of fresh-cut escarole was evaluated. Additionally, the degree of Escherichia coli cross-contamination between inoculated and uninoculated products after washing was also studied. Three types of wash water, i.e., potable water, diluted recirculated water, and recirculated water, containing different microbial counts and organic loads, were used. Results showed that microbial load (P > 0.02) and sensory quality (P > 0.625) of the product were not influenced by the water quality after washing and storage. Cross-contamination between inoculated and uninoculated products was observed after washing, as there was significant transmission of E. coli cells from the product to the wash water (P < 0.001). When fresh-cut escarole was contaminated at a high inoculum level (5.1 log CFU/g), wash water quality influenced the level of cross-contamination, as the highest E. coli load (P < 0.001) was shown in uninoculated fresh-cut escarole washed with recirculated water. However, when fresh-cut escarole was contaminated at a low inoculum level (3.2 log CFU/g), the wash water quality did not influence the level of cross-contamination, as E. coli slightly increased, although not at a statistically significant level, after the uninoculated product was washed with recirculated water (P > 0.035). Therefore, the contamination level may impact the effectiveness of water quality to reduce pathogen concentrations. It was clearly observed that cross-contamination of fresh-cut escarole with E. coli occurs, thereby suggesting that small amounts of contamination could impact the overall product and indicating the necessity of using wash water sanitizers to eliminate pathogens.

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