Lettuce has been implicated in human norovirus (HuNoV) outbreaks. The virus is stable on the leaf surface for at least 2 weeks; however, the dynamics of virus internalization have not been fully investigated. The purpose of this study was to assess the internalization and distribution of HuNoV and two surrogate viruses, porcine sapovirus (SaV) and Tulane virus (TV), in lettuce and spinach. Viral inoculations through the roots of seedlings and the petiole of leaves from mature plants were performed, and the viruses were tracked on days 1 and 6 post-root inoculation and at 16 h and 72 h post-petiole inoculation. Confocal microscopy was used to visualize root-internalized HuNoV. In both lettuce and spinach, (i) HuNoV was internalized into the roots and leaves at similar RNA titers, whereas surrogate viruses were more restricted to the roots, (ii) all three viruses were stable inside the roots and leaves for at least 6 days, and (iii) HuNoV disseminated similarly inside the central veins and leaf lamina, whereas surrogate viruses were more restricted to the central veins. Infectious TV, but not SaV, was detectable in all tissues, suggesting that TV has greater stability than SaV. HuNoV was visualized inside the roots’ vascular bundle and the leaf mesophyll of both plants. In conclusion, using surrogate viruses may underestimate the level of HuNoV internalization into edible leaves. The internalization of HuNoV through roots and cut leaves and the dissemination into various spinach and lettuce tissues raise concerns of internal contamination through irrigation and/or wash water.
IMPORTANCE Human noroviruses are the leading cause of foodborne outbreaks, with lettuce being implicated in the majority of outbreaks. The virus causes acute gastroenteritis in all age groups, with more severe symptoms in children, the elderly, and immunocompromised patients, contributing to over 200,000 deaths worldwide annually. The majority of deaths due to HuNoV occur in the developing world, where limited sanitation exists along with poor wastewater treatment facilities, resulting in the contamination of water resources that are often used for irrigation. Our study confirms the ability of lettuce and spinach to internalize HuNoV from contaminated water through the roots into the edible leaves. Since these leafy greens are consumed with minimal processing that targets only surface pathogens, the internalized HuNoV presents an added risk to consumers. Thus, preventive measures should be in place to limit the contamination of irrigation water. In addition, better processing technologies are needed to inactivate internalized viral pathogens.