Effect of Standard Post-harvest Interventions of Fresh Vegetables on Bacterial Community Dynamics, Pathogen Survival and Antibiotic Resistance

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Virginia Tech


Food-borne illness outbreaks are occasionally associated with fresh-vegetable consumption, in part due to lack of a microbial inactivation step before consumption. Raw manure or improperly composted manure applied as soil amendments is an established source of pathogenic bacterial contamination. However, less is known about whether such soil amendments could serve as a source of transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARB) or antibiotic-resistance genes (ARGs) via fresh produce. As such knowledge is developing, it is useful to identify strategies for mitigating ARGs and ARB on vegetable surfaces, especially those that are synergistic with known benefits in terms of general pathogen reduction on fresh produce.

Sanitizers play an important role in post-harvest processing of vegetables, especially in terms of disinfecting the wash water and preventing cross-contamination. Further, temperature and time of storage of vegetables are critical to prevent the growth of microorganisms. To provide a background inoculum representing potential pre-harvest carryover of ARB and ARGs, carrots or romaine lettuce leaves were dipped in a slurry derived from composted manure from dairy cows previously dosed with antibiotics and further inoculated with multi-drug resistant E. coli O157:H7, a human pathogen, and a spoilage-associated and opportunistic pathogenic strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Inoculated carrots (n=3, 25 g) were washed with water containing different sanitizers (sodium hypochlorite or peroxyacetic acid) or unwashed (control), packaged and stored at 10ºC for 7d or 2ºC for up to 60 d. Inoculated lettuce leaves (n=3, 100 g) were washed with sodium hypochlorite, packaged in modified atmosphere conditions (98% nitrogen), irradiated (1.0 kGy) and subsequently stored at 4ºC for 14 d. The effect of post-harvest treatment were compared at various times by enumeration on selective media. In addition, cultureindependent techniques were also performed to determine changes to the surficial carrot and lettuce microbiota by sequencing bacterial 16S rRNA gene amplicons. The effect of post-harvest treatments on the types and relative abundance of ARGs, also known as the “resistome,” were profiled by shotgun metagenomic sequencing and qPCR.

Addition of a sanitizer during wash, storage temperature, and duration of storage affected the bacterial community structures on carrots, represented by the weighted Unifrac distance matrices (ANOSIM, R=0.465). Storage of sanitizer-washed carrots at 10ºC was associated with an increase in relative abundance of Pseudomonadaceae compared to 2ºC storage for 7 d (Wilcoxon, p<0.05). Increase in storage temperature from 2ºC (optimum) to 10ºC (temperature abuse) of sanitizer-washed carrots resulted in enrichment of ARGs conferring resistance to the following antibiotic classes: multidrug, peptide, polymyxin, quinolone, triclosan, aminoglycoside, bacitracin, β-lactam, and fosfomycin. Irradiation resulted in significant reductions (~3.5 log CFU/g) of inoculated antibiotic-resistant E. coli O157:H7 and Pseudomonas sp. on lettuce surfaces (ANOVA, p<0.05). The lettuce resistome, represented by the Bray-Curtis similarity of ARG occurrence, was affected by irradiation (ANOSIM, R=0.406). Irradiation of lettuce followed by 14 d of storage at 4ºC resulted in 2-4-fold reductions in relative abundance of ARGs encoding resistance to the following antibiotic classes: triclosan, quinolones, multidrug, polymyxin and β-lactam (Wilcoxon, p<0.05). No additional increase or reduction of the tet(A) gene present on inoculated P. aeruginosa was evident after 14d storage at 4ºC on irradiated samples.

Results of this study suggest that inclusion of a sanitizer in wash water, irradiation, and storage at optimum refrigerated temperatures may offer effective strategies to combat proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria and antibiotic resistance genes on fresh produce. Further research is needed develop interventions that can mitigate tet(A) and other ARGs on produce that were not significantly reduced by irradiation. This study will guide future research on microbiome and metagenome of processed produce and assessment of critical control points to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance from farm-to-fork.



Post-harvest, carrots, sanitizer, lettuce, irradiation, E. coli O157:H7 Pseudomonas, compost, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, antibiotic resistance genes