Escherichia coli O157:H7 continues to be an important human pathogen and has been increasingly linked to food-borne illness associated with fresh produce, particularly leafy greens. The aim of this work was to investigate the fate of E. coli O157:H7 on the phyllosphere of lettuce under low temperature and to evaluate the potential hazard of viable but nonculturable (VBNC) cells induced under such stressful conditions. First, we studied the survival of six bacterial strains following prolonged storage in water at low temperature (4°C) and selected two strains with different nonculturable responses for the construction of E. coli O157:H7 Tn7gfp transformants in order to quantitatively assess the occurrence of human pathogens on the plant surface. Under a suboptimal growth temperature (16°C), both E. coli O157:H7 strains maintained culturability on lettuce leaves, but under more stressful conditions (8°C), the bacterial populations evolved toward the VBNC state.
The strain-dependent nonculturable response was more evident in the experiments with different inoculum doses (109 and 106 E. coli O157:H7 bacteria per g of leaf) when strain BRMSID 188 lost culturability after 15 days and strain ATCC 43895 lost culturability within 7 days, regardless of the inoculum dose. However, the number of cells entering the VBNC state in high-cell-density inoculum (approximately 55%) was lower than in low-cell-density inoculum (approximately 70%). We recorded the presence of verotoxin for 3 days in samples that contained a VBNC population of 4 to 5 log10 cells but did not detect culturable cells. These findings indicate that E. coli O157:H7 VBNC cells are induced on lettuce plants, and this may have implications regarding food safety.