USDA: Seasonality, shelf life and storage atmosphere are main drivers of the microbiome and E. coli O157:H7 colonization of post-harvest lettuce cultivated in a major production area in CA
Lettuce is linked to recurrent outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) infections, the seasonality of which remains unresolved. Infections have occurred largely from processed lettuce, which undergoes substantial physiological changes during storage. We investigated the microbiome and STEC O157:H7 (EcO157) colonization of fresh-cut lettuce of two cultivars with long and short shelf life harvested in the spring and fall in California and stored in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) at cold and warm temperatures.
Inoculated EcO157 declined significantly less on the cold-stored cultivar with short shelf life, while multiplying rapidly at 24 °C independently of cultivar. Metagenomic sequencing of the lettuce microbiome revealed that the pre-storage bacterial community was variable but dominated by species in the Erwiniaceae and Pseudomonadaceae. After cold storage, the microbiome composition differed between cultivars, with a greater relative abundance (RA) of Erwiniaceae and Yersiniaceae on the cultivar with short shelf life. Storage at 24 °C shifted the microbiome to higher RAs of Erwiniaceae and Enterobacteriaceae and lower RA of Pseudomonadaceae compared with 6 °C. Fall harvest followed by lettuce deterioration were identified by recursive partitioning as important factors associated with high EcO157 survival at 6 °C, whereas elevated package CO2 levels correlated with high EcO157 multiplication at 24 °C. EcO157 population change correlated with the lettuce microbiome during 6 °C storage, with fall microbiomes supporting the greatest EcO157 survival on both cultivars. Fall and spring microbiomes differed before and during storage at both temperatures. High representation of Pantoea agglomerans was a predictor of fall microbiomes, lettuce deterioration, and enhanced EcO157 survival at 6 °C. In contrast, higher RAs of Erwinia persicina, Rahnella aquatilis, and Serratia liquefaciens were biomarkers of spring microbiomes and lower EcO157 survival.
The microbiome of processed MAP lettuce evolves extensively during storage. Under temperature abuse, high CO2 promotes a lettuce microbiome enriched in taxa with anaerobic capability and EcO157 multiplication. In cold storage, our results strongly support a role for season and lettuce deterioration in EcO157 survival and microbiome composition, suggesting that the physiology and microbiomes of fall- and spring-harvested lettuce may contribute to the seasonality of STEC outbreaks associated with lettuce grown in coastal California.
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