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Insight into the Prevalence and Distribution of Microbial Contamination To Evaluate Water Management in the Fresh Produce Processing Industry

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Abstract:

This study provided insight into the degree of microbial contamination in the processing chain of prepacked (bagged) lettuce in two Belgian fresh-cut produce processing companies. The pathogens Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes were not detected. Total psychrotrophic aerobic bacterial counts (TPACs) in water samples, fresh produce, and environmental samples suggested that the TPAC is not a good indicator of overall quality and best manufacturing practices during production and processing. Because of the high TPACs in the harvested lettuce crops, the process water becomes quickly contaminated, and subsequent TPACs do not change much throughout the production process of a batch. The hygiene indicator Escherichia coli was used to assess the water management practices in these two companies in relation to food safety. Practices such as insufficient cleaning and disinfection of washing baths, irregular refilling of the produce wash baths with water of good microbial quality, and the use of high product/water ratios resulted in a rapid increase in E. coli in the processing water, with potential transfer to the end product (fresh-cut lettuce). The washing step in the production of fresh-cut lettuce was identified as a potential pathway for dispersion of microorganisms and introduction of E. coli to the end product via cross-contamination. An intervention step to reduce microbial contamination is needed, particularly when no sanitizers are used as is the case in some European Union countries. Thus, from a food safety point of view proper water management (and its validation) is a critical point in the fresh-cut produce processing industry.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-11-175

Affiliations: 1: Laboratory of Food Microbiology and Food Preservation, Department of Food Safety and Food Quality, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Coupure Links 653, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium; Research Group EnBiChem, Department of Industrial Engineering and Technology, University College West-Flanders (Howest), Graaf Karel de Goedelaan 5, B-8500 Kortrijk, Belgium 2: Laboratory of Food Microbiology and Food Preservation, Department of Food Safety and Food Quality, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Coupure Links 653, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium 3: Laboratory of Food Microbiology and Food Preservation, Department of Food Safety and Food Quality, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Coupure Links 653, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium; Research Group EnBiChem, Department of Industrial Engineering and Technology, University College West-Flanders (Howest), Graaf Karel de Goedelaan 5, B-8500 Kortrijk, Belgium., Email: imca.sampers@howest.be

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