In this study, we investigated the fate of Listeria monocytogenes , pathogenic Yersinia enterocolitica , and Escherichia coli O157:H7 gfp(+) inoculated in low numbers into ready-to-eat baby spinach and mixed-ingredient salad (baby spinach with chicken meat). Samples were stored at recommended maximum refrigerator temperature (8°C in Sweden) or at an abuse temperature (15°C) for up to 7 days. Mixed-ingredient salad supported considerable growth when stored at 15°C during shelf life (3 days), with populations of L. monocytogenes , pathogenic Y. enterocolitica , and E. coli O157:H7 gfp(+) increasing from less than 2.0 log CFU/g on day 0 to 7.0, 4.0, and 5.6 log CFU/g, respectively. However, when mixed-ingredient salad was stored at 8°C during shelf life, only L. monocytogenes increased significantly, reaching 3.0 log CFU/g within 3 days. In plain baby spinach, only pathogenic Y. enterocolitica populations increased significantly during storage for 7 days, and this was exclusively at an abuse temperature (15°C). Thus, mixing ready-to-eat leafy vegetables with chicken meat strongly influenced levels of inoculated strains during storage. To explore the food safety implications of these findings, bacterial numbers were translated into risks of infection by modeling. The risk of listeriosis (measured as probability of infection) was 16 times higher when consuming a mixed-ingredient salad stored at 8°C at the end of shelf life, or 200,000 times higher when stored at 15°C, compared with when consuming it on the day of inoculation. This indicates that efforts should focus on preventing temperature abuse during storage to mitigate the risk of listeriosis. The storage conditions recommended for mixed-ingredient salads in Sweden (maximum 8°C for 3 days) did not prevent growth of L. monocytogenes in baby spinach mixed with chicken meat. Manufacturers preparing these salads should be aware of this, and recommended storage temperature should be revised downwards to reduce the risk of foodborne disease.
Prepacked ready-to-eat mixed ingredient salads (RTE salads) are readily available whole meals that include a variety of ingredients such as raw vegetables, cooked meat, and pasta. As part of a trend toward healthy convenience foods, RTE salads have become an increasingly popular product among consumers. However, data on the incidence of foodborne pathogens in RTE salads are scarce. In this study, the microbiological safety of 141 RTE salads containing chicken, ham, or smoked salmon was investigated. Salad samples were collected at retail and analyzed using standard methods for Listeria monocytogenes, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), pathogenic Yersinia enterocolitica, Salmonella, and Campylobacter spp.L. monocytogenes was isolated from two (1.4%) of the RTE salad samples. Seven (5.0%) of the samples were positive for the ail gene (present in all human pathogenic Y. enterocolitica isolates) and three (2.1%) of the samples were positive for the Shiga toxin genes stx1 and/or stx2. However, no strains of pathogenic Y.enterocolitica or STEC were isolated. Thus, pathogens were found or suspected in almost 1 of 10 RTE salads investigated, and pathogenic bacteria probably are present in various RTE salads from retail premises in Sweden. Because RTE salads are intended to be consumed without heat treatment, control of the ingredients and production hygiene is essential to maintain consumer safety. The recommended maximum storage temperature for RTE salads varies among countries but can be up to 8°C (e.g., in Sweden). Even during a short shelf life (3 to 5 days), storage at 8°C can enable growth of psychrotrophs such as L. monocytogenes and Y. enterocolitica. The maximum storage temperature should therefore be reduced.