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Salmonella warning over damaged salad leaves

Investigations by University of Leicester microbiologists have revealed that just a small amount of damage to salad leaves can stimulate the presence of the food poisoning bug Salmonella in ready-prepared salad leaves.

The scientists have discovered that juices released from damaged leaves also had the effect of enhancing the virulence of the pathogen, potentially increasing its ability to cause infection in the consumer. The research is led by Dr Primrose Freestone of the University’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation and PhD student Glannis Koukkidis.

Their research investigates novel methods of preventing food poisoning pathogens from attaching to the surface of salad leaves to help producers improve food safety for consumers. The latest study found that juices from damaged leaves in bagged spinach and mixed salad increased Salmonella pathogen growth 2400-fold over a control group and also enhanced their adherence to surfaces and overall virulence, or capacity to cause disease.

Freestone says, “Salad leaves are cut during harvesting and we found that even microliters of the juices (less than 1/200th of a teaspoon) which leach from the cut-ends of the leaves enabled Salmonella to grow in water, even when it was refrigerated. These juices also helped the Salmonella to attach itself to the salad leaves so strongly that vigorous washing could not remove the bacteria, and even enabled the pathogen to attach to the salad bag container.

“This strongly emphasises the need for salad leaf growers to maintain high food safety standards as even a few Salmonella cells in a salad bag at the time of purchase could become many thousands by the time a bag of salad leaves reaches its use by date, even if kept refrigerated. Even small traces of juices released from damaged leaves can make the pathogen grow better and become more able to cause disease.

“It also serves as a reminder to consume a bagged salad as soon as possible after it is opened. We found that once opened, the bacteria naturally present on the leaves also grew much faster even when kept cold in the fridge. This research did not look for evidence of Salmonella in bagged salads. Instead, it examined how Salmonella grows on salad leaves when they are damaged.”

Koukkidis adds, “Anything which enhances adherence of foodborne pathogens to leaf surfaces also increases their persistence and ability to resist removal, such as during salad washing procedures.  Even more worrying for those who might eat a Salmonella contaminated salad was the finding that proteins required for the virulence (capacity to cause infection) of the bacteria were increased when the Salmonella came into contact with the salad leaf juices.

“Preventing enteric pathogen contamination of fresh salad produce would not only reassure consumers but will also benefit the economy due to fewer days lost through food poisoning. We are now working hard to find ways of preventing salad-based infections.”

Professor Melanie Welham, chief executive at Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), concludes, “Food-borne pathogens like Salmonella are serious bacterial threats that affect our health which is why BBSRC invests in research to understand and combat food poisoning.”

 

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