The strategy, however, is comprised of the types of things that farmers, inspectors and importers should already be doing under current regulations. No definitive source of the bacteria was found for either outbreak, but investigators believe it was contaminated irrigation water. Onions in the 2020 outbreak came from farms in California, while last year’s outbreak came from two farms located close to one another in Mexico.
FDA proposes an educational campaign engaging farmers, state and local regulators and produce growing groups, as well as foreign governments and international produce associations, to fully understand what was thought to be the root cause of the outbreaks. This campaign would also reinforce the importance of root cause analysis after the fact to determine sources of contamination, FDA said.
Inspections of onion growing and processing facilities would also get special attention — both through those required as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule, and additional inspections to determine facilities are sanitary and don’t promote spreading of contaminants. The department would also do additional research and find more information about how onions are grown and cured, as well as developing best practices for quality and safety.
In the case of imported onions, the department recommends ensuring that all farms and processors are inspected under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program, which would make sure all onions not grown in the United States have been subjected to the same amount of scrutiny as those grown domestically. The U.S. would also ramp up its sampling and testing program to ensure imported onions are not contaminated, and work more closely with the Mexican government through existing programs to ensure safe production.
Missing from these recommendations is anything specific about water testing. This may be because FDA is working through the regulatory process to strengthen existing agricultural water testing requirements. FDA proposed the more stringent rule in December. It would require farms to perform comprehensive water system assessments, analyze potential risks to water quality and quickly mitigate any condition that may compromise water quality.
The department said it is currently accepting stakeholder comments about when this rule should take effect.