Published Date2020-01-01
JournalLetters in applied microbiology, 2020-01-01, Volume 70 Find other publications in this journal
Author Info
  • School of Food and Agriculture, University of Maine, Orono, ME, USA.


This study investigated potential contamination sources in a commercial, closed hydroponic system. Water, substrate and lettuce (Lactuca sativa) samples were evaluated for microbiological indicator populations, including aerobic plate count (APC), coliform bacteria (CB) and yeast and mould (YM). Listeria spp. detection via cultural enrichment and agglutination was negative for all samples. Peat moss substrate (postharvest) had the highest counts for APC (6·8 log CFU per g), CB (4·5 log MPN per g) and YM (5·1 and 4·8 log CFU per g respectively). Roots embedded in plugs demonstrated counts for all populations nearly as high as the substrate. Among water samples, a seedling water reservoir housing germinated plants yielded the highest count for APC (5·1 log CFU per g) and CB (2·4 log MPN per g) likely due to the large numbers of plugs and their close proximity in the reservoir. Harvested lettuce leaves demonstrated higher APC (4·1 log CFU per g) than preharvest leaves (1·7 log CFU per g) due to the transfer of microbes from the root ball. These data suggest that substrates are a significant potential source of contamination in hydroponic systems and likely facilitate microbial transfer to harvested leaves. There is, therefore, the need to further investigate mitigation of potential contamination events. SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY: Hydroponic production is known to provide safe, clean produce. This study, however, suggests that the hydroponic substrate (peat moss plug) is a possible source of contamination in the hydroponic system. This finding is important as most harvested hydroponic lettuces are packaged and sold with substrate and root ball intact. This implies a high probability of microbial transfer from the root ball to edible harvested lettuce leaves.