- A multi-year food safety initiative involving government, academia and industry to better understand the impact of pathogens on leafy greens in the agricultural region including Yuma County, Arizona, and the Imperial Valley in California kicked off this week, according to a release from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- This coordinated effort comes after last year's E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma area, the agency said. It was the largest U.S. outbreak since 2006 and caused 210 illnesses in 36 states, including 96 hospitalizations, 27 cases of cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome and five deaths.
- The FDA said support will come from the Arizona Department of Agriculture working with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District and members of the area's leafy greens industry. Research teams will collect and examine samples of surface water, canal sediment and dust. They will also collect scat samples to determine how animals impact the region's growing environment.
This initiative could lead to better understanding of how pathogens can contaminate leafy greens in the Yuma growing region, which produces more than 90% of leafy greens and vegetables eaten in the U.S. each winter. The FDA anticipates the results will shed light on how environmental factors influence bacterial persistence in the region and help lower the risk of leafy greens becoming contaminated, which could boost confidence in the industry.
Although the environmental assessment last year provided useful information about that outbreak, the source of the E. coli and how widely it was distributed remain unknown. Collaboration could help close knowledge gaps and lead to best management practices to help prevent future outbreaks.
University of Arizona researchers plan to use study findings to recommend best management practices to leafy greens growers in the Yuma region, according to a university release. Channah Rock, a UA professor and extension specialist, said in the release safe food production is paramount to leafy greens growers. The FDA has partnered with various universities for research before, and it makes sense for the agency to work with the University of Arizona to be close to the source.
As the calendar nears the busy growing season, it is important to the leafy greens industry, retailers and consumers to find out how pathogen contamination occurs and spreads in the Yuma region. Last year's outbreak may have been caused by direct application of contaminated irrigation canal water or by dilute chemicals applied to the crop, the FDA said last fall.
Consumer confidence could take another hit if more outbreaks happen involving the area, which could be even more expensive. Growers, retailers and restaurants lost millions from the 2018 outbreak, according to The Wall Street Journal. Romaine prices fell by more than 50%, and farmers either plowed under lettuce fields or left them to rot. Restaurants that served romaine lettuce were sued by customers, and wholesalers scrambled for replacement greens as eateries removed it from their menus. Afterward, Walmart announced it would mandate blockchain use for leafy green suppliers.
The FDA didn't mention updating the public as survey results come in, but it would be helpful for consumers and companies to know how things are going since they're indirectly paying for this initiative and might value knowing what the research teams are finding.
The agency also didn't address whether it plans to fully implement the Food Safety Modernization Act's produce safety rule as consumer groups have advocated. Mandatory water testing requirements for growers, which the FDA delayed in 2017 out of concern for the regulatory burden, have been supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest as a way to keep contaminated water from being used on produce.
Some produce companies have initiated water testing requirements to try and limit that potential pathogen route. Members of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California and Arizona have developed their own water safety guidelines. These measures, along with the FDA's voluntary industry labeling regime indicating origin and harvest date, should help to reassure uneasy consumers until more solid information from this new initiative is available.