Page Banner

United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: MICROBIAL ECOLOGY AND SAFETY OF FRESH PRODUCE

Location: Environmental Microbial and Food Safety Laboratory

Title: Comparison of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Composting Council... Escherichia coli O157:H7 in finished compost

Authors
item Reynnells, Russell
item Ingram, David -
item ROBERTS, CHERYL
item Stonebraker, Richard
item HANDY, ERIC
item Felton, Gary -
item VINYARD, BRYAN
item MILLNER, PATRICIA
item SHARMA, MANAN

Submitted to: Foodborne Pathogens and Disease
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: February 24, 2014
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Compost is organic material that is intended for use as a soil amendment to improve or maintain soil quality; it is especially beneficial for intensively managed cropping systems such as those associated with production of a wide variety of annual vegetables. Mature compost results from a managed biological process that involves the microbiologically self-heated decomposition of organic residuals and by-products (manure, food and landscape/yard trimmings, biosolids) such that nutrients are stabilized, potential pathogens are reduced, and odors and vector (insect) attraction are eliminated. Compost which is not adequately exposed to high temperatures for sufficient time periods may harbor some surviving bacterial pathogens and these survivors could potentially regrow under favorable conditions. Previous studies indicated that finished, properly treated compost (i.e., exposed to adequate time-temperatures to destroy pathogens) tested positive for the presence of E. coli and Salmonella spp. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) stipulate the use of different methods to determine the presence and amounts of fecal coliforms and Salmonella spp. as indicators of total pathogens in finished compost. These methods have never been compared to determine if one is more sensitive than the other in recovering these bacterial groups. This research report presents results of a study comparing these two methods of detecting and measuring the amounts of fecal coliforms and Salmonella spp., using 29 different commercially available, finished composts from 19 different states. Results show that the EPA methods were more sensitive than the USCC method in recovering/detecting E. coli, whereas the methods were equally sensitive in recovering/detecting Salmonella spp. The study also examined the correlation between compost properties, such as carbon:nitrogen ratio, percent moisture, percent volatile solids, pH, total organic carbon, and compost maturity, and the amount and rate of regrowth of E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp. in compost. No single compost property or combination of properties was a good predictor of the potential for regrowth of these pathogens, but the carbon: nitrogen ratio and total organic carbon content were the most important contributors influencing potential regrowth of these pathogens in point-of-sale composts. Overall, this work shows that EPA methods are optimal for detecting E. coli in finished point-of-sale composts, and should be strongly considered for use in all compost testing programs.

Technical Abstract: Composting management or conditions that result in inadequate exposure of the compostable materials to destructive time-temperature regimens can result in survival of enteric human pathogens. Bacterial pathogens, such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp., can regrow in finished compost. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Composting Council (USCC) stipulate different methods to recover populations of fecal coliforms and Salmonella spp. as indicators of total bacterial pathogens in finished compost. In this study, the EPA and the USCC, or TMECC methods, were compared for their specificity and sensitivity in recovering fecal coliforms and Salmonella spp. Twenty-nine different point-of-sale, finished composts were obtained from 19 different U.S. states and inoculated with E. coli, E. coli O157:H7, and Salmonella spp. The EPA method recovered significantly (p = 0.0003) greater percentages of fecal coliforms and E. coli than USCC method; there was no statistical difference between the two methods for recovery of Salmonella spp. The second objective was to identify non-microbiological, physico-chemical parameters (carbon:nitrogen ratio, percent moisture, percent volatile solids, pH, total organic carbon, and maturity) of compost which could predict the regrowth of Salmonella spp. and E. coli O157:H7. No sole physicochemical measurement was able predict the regrowth of Salmonella or O157:H7 in compost, although the carbon:nitrogen ratio, total organic carbon levels, and percent moisture were the most influential factors in observing the regrowth of these bacterial pathogens. Salmonella spp. and E. coli O157:H7 populations regrew in 52% and 56% of compost samples, respectively. The increased amount of compost and the larger transfer and dilution volumes used in EPA methods allowed them to recover a greater percentage of inoculated E. coli from compost when compared to the TMECC methods, and these amounts and volumes should be considered by compost operators and testing laboratories when executing these microbiological tests.

Last Modified: 7/25/2014
Footer Content Back to Top of Page