The recognition that irrigation water sources contribute to preharvest contamination of produce has led to new regulations on testing microbial water quality. To best identify contamination problems, growers who depend on irrigation ponds need guidance on how and where to collect water samples for testing. In this study, we evaluated several sampling strategies to identify Salmonella and Escherichia coli contamination in five ponds used for irrigation on produce farms in southern Georgia. Both Salmonella and E. coli were detected regularly in all the ponds over the 19-month study period, with overall prevalence and concentrations increasing in late summer and early fall. Of 507 water samples, 217 (42.8%) were positive for Salmonella, with a very low geometric mean (GM) concentration of 0.06 most probable number (MPN)/100 mL, and 442 (87.1%) tested positive for E. coli, with a GM of 6.40 MPN/100 mL. We found no significant differences in Salmonella or E. coli detection rates or concentrations between sampling at the bank closest to the pump intake versus sampling from the bank around the pond perimeter, when comparing with results from the pump intake, which we considered our gold standard. However, samples collected from the bank closest to the intake had a greater level of agreement with the intake (Cohen's kappa statistic = 0.53; p < 0.001) than the samples collected around the pond perimeter (kappa = 0.34; p = 0.009). E. coli concentrations were associated with increased odds of Salmonella detection (odds ratio = 1.31; 95% confidence interval = 1.10-1.56). All the ponds would have met the Produce Safety Rule standards for E. coli, although Salmonella was also detected. Results from this study provide important information to growers and regulators about pathogen detection in irrigation ponds and inform best practices for surface water sampling.
Keywords: E. coli; Food Safety Modernization Act; Salmonella; agriculture; irrigation; on-farm food safety.