Consumption of fresh tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) has been implicated as the cause of several foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States, most notably in cases of salmonellosis. How the levels of fecal indicator organisms (FIOs) in water relate to the counts of these microorganisms on the tomato fruit surface is unknown, although microbial water quality standards exist for agricultural use. This study utilized four types of FIOs currently and historically used in microbial water quality standards (Enterobacteriaceae, total coliforms, fecal coliforms, and Escherichia coli) to monitor the water quality of two surface ponds and a groundwater source. The groundwater tested contained significantly lower counts of all FIOs than the two surface water sources (P < 0.05). Considerable variability in bacterial counts was found in the surface water sources over the course of the season, perhaps explained by environmental variables, such as water temperature, pH, precipitation, and air temperature (R2 of 0.13 to 0.27). We also monitored the fruit surface of grape tomatoes treated with overhead applications of the different water sources over the 2009 and 2010 growing seasons. The type of water source and time of year significantly affected the populations of FIOs in irrigation water (P < 0.05). Despite up to 5-log differences in fecal coliforms and 3-log differences in E. coli between the water sources, there was little difference in the populations measured in washes taken from tomato fruits. This lack of association between the aforementioned FIOs present in the water samples and on the tomato fruit surface demonstrates the difficulty in developing reliable metrics needed for testing of agricultural water to ensure the effectiveness of food safety programs.

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Author notes

Present address: Division of Microbiology, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 5100 Paint Branch Parkway, College Park, MD 20740, USA.