Preventing E. Coli outbreaks

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: making lettuce safer to eat.

E.coli is a bacteria commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. It usually doesn’t do any harm. But some E.coli strains can cause severe food poisoning that can lead to death.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Because of the danger E.coli presents, America’s produce growers follow precautions to prevent contamination from creeping into America’s salad bowls.

But the romaine lettuce industry recently has had a particularly difficult time.

Just two days before Thanksgiving, the CDC announced an E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from central and northern California. It has so far sickened 43 people in 12 states. That latest outbreak comes after two others involving romaine lettuce—both in Yuma, Arizona.

REICHARD: These three outbreaks have the FDA and the produce industry wondering whether they are doing enough to protect the quality of leafy greens. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has this report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Yuma, Arizona is a region near the Mexican border. It’s known as the winter lettuce capital of the world. The E.coli outbreak that happened there this spring was the worst of its kind since 2006.

Paula Rivadeneira is a Food Safety and Wildlife Extension Specialist at the University of Arizona. She works with romaine lettuce growers in Yuma.

RIVADENEIRA: It’s a challenging situation because you, you pretty much put a black eye on their region and so people will say, well if it came from Yuma, I don’t want to eat anything from Yuma.

Rivadeneira says outdoor lettuce growers always face the serious challenge of keeping their fields free from the feces that carry bad E.coli bacteria.

RIVADENEIRA: It’s pretty miraculous that a head of lettuce doesn’t cost $5 in the supermarket when you think about all of the efforts for farmers have to go to, to keep our food safe from deer, from birds, from water, from all of the potential things that could harm it.

It’s not yet known how romaine got contaminated in the latest outbreak. But the FDA linked the Yuma outbreak this spring to an irrigation canal contaminated with manure. Twenty-three Yuma growers used water from that canal to irrigate their crops.

The FDA says it’s likely the contamination came from a large cattle feedlot nearby although investigators never found a direct link.

But some food safety experts and advocates note even without a direct link, common sense says growing lettuce near so many animals is risky. Bill Marler is a food safety lawyer representing nearly 100 people who contracted E.coli from the Yuma romaine.

MARLER: What happened last spring is not something that anyone can look at and say, oh, we didn’t see it coming. I mean, you can hear the cows mooing. You know you got a problem.

Marler says the FDA also needs to require more stringent water testing to catch contamination.

The romaine lettuce industry must meet regulatory requirements under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It includes water testing and sanitation regulations for workers and equipment. But regulators delayed the implementation of those rules until January 2018. The FDA says once all the rules are fully in place, vegetables will be safer to eat.

Don Schaffner is a food safety professor at Rutgers University. He says even with stricter testing, catching all E.coli-tainted water is nearly impossible.

SCHAFFNER: Just because you’re testing your irrigation water doesn’t mean that you’re testing every single drop of water because of course if you tested every single drop of water by sending it to a laboratory, all the water would be at the laboratory and none of it would be on the, on the produce.

In response to the outbreaks, both Yuma and California vegetable growers have agreed to increase the size of buffer zones between crops and feedlots. The FDA says it also plans to create a program to collect and analyze romaine lettuce samples for E.coli pathogens. Yuma farmers have also started treating irrigation water with chlorine.

But Schaffner says farmers have to ask themselves if using water that could potentially be dangerous is worth it at all.  

SCHAFFNER: If I’ve got an irrigation canal and it’s downstream from the way a water drains from a field where cows are pooping, maybe I shouldn’t even use that at all, whether it’s within the buffer zone or not.

The University of Arizona’s Paula Rivadeneira says when an E.coli outbreak occurs, blame shouldn’t always rest on farmers who already have a heavy regulatory burden.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler agrees. Instead of shifting blame, he says all links in the supply chain need to do their part to prevent a future outbreak.

MARLER: If all you are doing is tracing outbreaks back, it seems to me the focus should be on figuring out how to prevent the outbreak to begin with.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File) In this Nov. 20, 2018 file photo, romaine lettuce sits on the shelves as a shopper walks through the produce area of an Albertsons market in Simi Valley, Calif. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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