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U.S. lettuce industry, wary of E. coli, wants FDA back on the job

Washington Post Food critic and writer Tim Carman explains why the E. coli bacteria made romaine lettuce unsafe to eat. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

It’s the peak of the leafy greens growing season in Yuma, Ariz., where irrigated valleys are lush and verdant amid cactus-covered mountains. This is America’s Salad Paradise, which produces most of the fall and winter lettuce consumed in the United States.

Locals credit excellent soil, preposterously abundant sunshine and a steady supply of labor, thanks to Mexicans with work visas who cross the border checkpoint and ride buses to the fields.

But these are anxious times for the leafy greens industry, and the partial federal government shutdown and furloughing of many Food and Drug Administration officials has deepened the distress.

Three times in the past year, the industry has been roiled by foodborne-illness outbreaks linked to U.S.-grown romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria. The biggest outbreak, which sickened 210 people across the country beginning last March and left five dead, was linked to romaine grown in the Yuma area.

The multiple romaine lettuce disasters have exposed the complexity of the food system, in which a head of lettuce goes through so many facilities and is potentially mixed with so much other leafy produce that it can be impossible to trace the origin of a salad.

The outbreaks remain mysterious. The FDA’s investigations have produced plausible theories but nothing conclusive about how, when and where the bacteria contaminated the lettuce.

That’s a source of consternation for the $2 billion leafy greens industry, which desperately wants to avoid a repeat of what happened last year and is counting on the FDA for help. But because of the federal shutdown, the agency has barely been in the game.

“Our colleagues and I are kind of on hold, waiting for the FDA to come back into action,” said Paula Rivadeneira, an assistant professor who specializes in food safety at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Yuma. “We need them to open their doors and get back to business.”

During the shutdown, the FDA isn’t allowed to participate in conference calls or webinars with state officials, industry leaders and research scientists, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president for food safety at United Fresh Produce Association. She said the lack of FDA help has had a “ripple effect” as outside experts are forced to try to do their work without FDA data.

“We cannot afford to get bounce-back from people who are unable to check their email because they’re furloughed,” McEntire said.

Without improvements in the system, food safety lawyer Bill Marler said, “we’re just going to limp from outbreak to outbreak, from litigation to litigation. We’ll be having the same conversation this spring or next winter.”

Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said the agency continues to investigate the most recent romaine-linked outbreak, which was traced to central California. He said the agency is also maintaining heightened surveillance of romaine. What the agency isn’t doing during the shutdown, according to industry leaders and researchers, is playing an active role in reforms to curb future outbreaks.

On Tuesday, roughly 150 FDA inspectors and technical staffers returned to work without pay to conduct inspections of facilities across the country, according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. The recalled inspectors, who remain unpaid, will work on “high risk inspections” that “could potentially include leafy greens, including romaine lettuce,” the FDA said.

The agency provided limited details about what it is and isn’t doing during the shutdown. “All our work is important, but only some of the FDA’s work is permitted to continue during a lapse in funding, which may include some activities with industry and other groups,” the FDA said.

The leafy greens industry has already made changes. Lettuce sold at stores is now more likely to be clearly labeled to reveal its origin. There are new requirements for cleaning farm equipment. And in Arizona and California, required buffer zones between fields and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have tripled, from 400 feet to 1,200 feet.

“Everybody recognizes that it’s not good enough to do business as usual,” said Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Many consumers have been reluctant to consume romaine since the most recent disaster two days before Thanksgiving, when the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 32 people in 11 states had been sickened by contaminated lettuce. Initially unable to pinpoint the source of the problem, the FDA and CDC asked retailers to pull all romaine from the shelves and told consumers to throw away any lettuce they had purchased.

In Yuma, where fields had already been planted, countless heads of romaine were simply plowed back into the soil.

In December, the FDA revealed that a soil sample from an irrigation reservoir on a farm in Santa Barbara County, Calif., had tested positive for the E. coli strain associated with the recent outbreak. But that didn’t solve the case. The FDA said that “our traceback work suggests that additional romaine lettuce shipped from other farms could also likely be implicated in the outbreak.”

The two previous romaine outbreaks last year also generated murky assessments. The first, which occurred late 2017 into January 2018, caused illness in both Canada and the United States. Neither country could identify the source. The bacterial strain in those cases had the same genetic fingerprint as the strain in the most recent outbreak, suggesting a common California origin.

In between those two events was the Yuma outbreak, which began in March. In a report published by the FDA on Nov. 1, the agency identified 36 growing fields on 23 farms in the Yuma growing region (which includes Southern California’s Imperial Valley) as potential sources of the contaminated lettuce. None tested positive for the specific E. coli strain that caused the illnesses, but the growing season was over by the time the investigation was done.

The FDA did find the dangerous bacterial strain in three samples of water taken from an irrigation canal in Wellton, Ariz., east of Yuma. Several of the farms had used water from that canal, the FDA said.

The canal runs next to a sprawling feedlot for as many as 100,000 cattle. The dangerous bacteria can lurk in the digestive system of cattle and other animals. Water from the feedlot could have potentially infiltrated the canal, the FDA concluded.

“There are 100,000 cows in a feedlot in an area where you grow romaine lettuce. This is not rocket science,” said Marler, the food safety lawyer. “Why are we growing romaine lettuce adjacent to a feed lot?”

But the FDA investigators did not find the outbreak strain of E. coli on the feedlot property. And there are other hypotheses for what happened.

“Another possibility is that the fecal matter [from cattle] was drying out and tiny particles were getting into the air, in the form of dust, essentially, and that was being blown around the region and getting onto the lettuce leaves,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director for regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

Despite these problems, Sorscher said, lettuce remains generally safe to eat.

“You don’t want people to be afraid to eat food, especially healthy food,” she said.

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