Cross-contamination of fresh-cut leafy greens with residual Escherichia coli O157:H7–contaminated product during commercial processing was likely a contributing factor in several recent multistate outbreaks.
Consequently, radicchio was used as a visual marker to track the spread of the contaminated product to iceberg lettuce in a pilot-scale processing line that included a commercial shredder, step conveyor, flume tank, shaker table, and centrifugal dryer. Uninoculated iceberg lettuce (45 kg) was processed, followed by 9.1 kg of radicchio (dip inoculated to contain a four-strain, green fluorescent protein–labeled nontoxigenic E. coli O157:H7 cocktail at 106 CFU/g) and 907 kg (2,000 lb) of uninoculated iceberg lettuce. After collecting the lettuce and radicchio in about 40 bags (∼22.7 kg per bag) along with water and equipment surface samples, all visible shreds of radicchio were retrieved from the bags of shredded product, the equipment, and the floor. E. coli O157:H7 populations were quantified in the lettuce, water, and equipment samples by direct plating with or without prior membrane filtration on Trypticase soy agar containing 0.6% yeast extract and 100 ppm of ampicillin. Based on triplicate experiments, the weight of radicchio in the shredded lettuce averaged 614.9 g (93.6%), 6.9 g (1.3%), 5.0 g (0.8%), and 2.8 g (0.5%) for bags 1 to 10, 11 to 20, 21 to 30, and 31 to 40, respectively, with mean E. coli O157:H7 populations of 1.7, 1.2, 1.1, and 1.1 log CFU/g in radicchio-free lettuce. After processing, more radicchio remained on the conveyor (9.8 g; P < 0.05), compared with the shredder (8.3 g), flume tank (3.5 g), and shaker table (0.1 g), with similar E. coli O157:H7 populations (P > 0.05) recovered from all equipment surfaces after processing.
These findings clearly demonstrate both the potential for the continuous spread of contaminated lettuce to multiple batches of product during processing and the need for improved equipment designs that minimize the buildup of residual product during processing.
Journal of Food Protection®, Number 9, September 2014, pp. 1448-1648, pp. 1487-1494(8)
Buchholz, Annemarie L.1; Davidson, Gordon R.1; Marks, Bradley P.2; Todd, Ewen C.D.3; Ryser, Elliot T.