Earlier this year, America faced one of the largest E. Coli outbreaks of the decade with 96 people hospitalized and five reported deaths across 36 states due to consuming contaminated romaine lettuce. On Monday, the FDA suggested that this outbreak was linked to a cattle feedlot whose water came in contact with romaine lettuce growing regions in Arizona.
The FDA has been investigating this outbreak since April. After looking through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback evidence, the FDA identified the Yuma growing region in Arizona to be the source of the bacterial outbreak. Monday’s update identified the primary source to be a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) near a canal that provides water to growing regions in Arizona. This water was likely used for irrigation and the FDA believes that dust from the CAFO’s feedlots may have contaminated the canal water and allowed for the growth of pathogens.
“The CAFO can hold in excess of 100,000 head of cattle at any one time and the FDA traceback information showed a clustering of romaine lettuce farms nearby. Our experts continue to work on examining potential links between the CAFO, adjacent water, and geologic and other factors that may explain the contamination and its relationship to the outbreak,” the FDA reported.
Produce growers in the Arizona area have been meeting regularly for the past few months to discuss the outbreak and measures to take against it. Due to the seriousness of this outbreak, food industry leaders launched a Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force to look over and improve produce growing practices. So far, the task force has suggested implementing a 1,200-foot buffer zone between leafy green growing fields and animal feedlots, which is triple the current industry standard of a 400-foot buffer zone.
Members of the California and Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement are scheduled to review the suggested 1,200-foot setback on Friday. Produce industry representatives have expressed their concerns for next season’s grow cycle and they hope that preventative measures will be put in place before leafy greens are replanted in the Yuma area. However, members of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement are accepting comments for 15 days before coming to a final decision.
Considering the fact that the task force is comprised of growers, packers, shippers, distributors and buyers, the group’s suggestions will have a lot of influence in the industry. In fact, task force members include major buyers such as Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A and Blue Apron as well as the nation’s largest foodservice supplier, Sysco. FDA and CDC members also took part in the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force.
“As FDA has previously stated, samples of canal water have tested positive for the outbreak strain of E. coli. FDA continues to consider that contaminated water coming into contact with produce, either through direct irrigation or other means, is a viable explanation for the pattern of contamination,” said the agency’s update.