Study Targets Antibiotic Resistance in Fresh Vegetables in the U.S.

En Huang, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, has received a three-year, $1 million research grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).                                                           

Huang and his team will investigate why some bacteria isolated from retail vegetables in the United States are resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics. The aforementioned class of antibiotics – considered the most important classes of antibiotics – are used in the management and treatment of bacterial infections.                                                                          

“Food is an important vehicle for transmitting foodborne microorganisms,” Huang said. “Since most vegetables are consumed when they’re raw or after only being minimally cooked, if present, those antibiotic-resistant bacteria could potentially harm people. Therefore, there’s an urgent need to understand the role of fresh produce in the transmission of antibiotic resistance.”

Typically, vegetables are not treated by antibiotics. However, there’s a growing possibility that fresh vegetables in the U.S. may be contaminated by either soil amendments or the water used to irrigate the crops containing antibiotic-resistant organisms. The possibility of vegetables being a carrier of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and resistance genes is a risk to public health.

The researchers seek to determine the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in retail vegetables and determine critical factors contributing to antibiotic resistance transmission in the vegetable production and supply chains. Additionally, they’ll create fact sheets, videos, and workshops with stakeholders. They will also present all findings to the agriculture industry.

The study – which begins in August – will take place in Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Southern California.                                   

“This is a much-needed food safety awareness project,” Huang said. “We want to help keep people safe. Right now, there’s a lack of research to determine the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in vegetables in the U.S.”