The impact of water application method on bacterial survival at or after the final irrigation was evaluated in bulb onions during commercially relevant field-drying (curing). A three-strain rifampin-resistant cocktail of Escherichia coli was introduced to onions via a single overhead spray application in two separate trials (5.22 [trial 1] or 2.40 [trial 2] log CFU per onion) 2 to 3 days after the final irrigation. Onions were lifted from the soil 8 days after spray inoculation and, in some cases, foliage was removed (topping); onions remained in the field for an additional ca. 2 weeks (total ca. 3 weeks of curing). E. coli populations declined on the onions in the first 4 h after spray inoculation. E. coli was recovered from 48% (38 of 80) or 35% (28 of 80) of whole-onion enrichments at the end of curing in trials 1 or 2, respectively. Topping did not significantly impact the percentage of E. coli–positive onions detected at the end of curing. From 8 h to 21 days, E. coli populations on positive onions ranged from 1 CFU per onion to 7 log CFU per onion in both trials, representing a potential risk of E. coli growth with overhead application of contaminated water at the end of onion production. In trial 2, additional rows of onions were inoculated via a 22-cm subsurface or surface drip irrigation line (1.94 log CFU/mL for 2.5 h). E. coli was detected in 0 of 50 (subsurface) or 4 of 50 (surface) whole-onion enrichments 3 h after the initiation of drip irrigation. Positive onions were detected at days 1 (4 of 50) and 7 (1 of 50) with subsurface drip inoculation, and at days 1 (7 of 50), 7 (2 of 50), or 14 (2 of 50) with surface drip inoculation. E. coli was not detected in whole-onion enrichments at the end of curing when inoculated by subsurface (0 of 50) or surface (0 of 50) drip irrigation. Application of contaminated water through drip irrigation, when coupled with field curing, results in low rates of contamination of bulb onions at the time of harvest.
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