Preharvest contamination of produce with food borne pathogens has been a major food safety issue. In this study, we investigated the effect of surrounding vegetation on the survival of natural and inoculated generic Escherichia coli on watermelon rinds in an agricultural field setting. There was no significant difference (p > .05) on the populations of natural generic E. coli (1–1.46 log Most Probable Number (MPN)/sample) and coliforms (<3.99 log CFU/cm2) on watermelons harvested from low, medium, and high levels of vegetation. However, the survival rate of generic E. coli inoculated on watermelon rind discs was variable with the level of vegetation. A significant reduction in generic E. coli count was observed within 12 hr at all vegetation levels. After 108 hr, discs placed at low vegetation level had a highest die‐off reduction (3 log Colony Forming Units (CFU)/cm2) compared to medium and high vegetation levels.
To ensure preharvest produce safety, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) produce safety rule has suggested a time interval between last irrigation and harvest for potentially contaminating microorganisms to die‐off. However, a knowledge gap exists regarding the influence of surrounding vegetation on microbial die‐off rates on produce in the agricultural field. The findings of this study emphasize the importance of considering the surrounding vegetation while making decisions for developing preharvest risk management strategies based on microbial die‐off rate calculations.