Food & Agriculture

FDA Investigation of Romaine Lettuce Outbreak Fingers Cattle Feedlot As Likely Culprit

Unclear Whether Recently Announced Grower Food Safety Practices Would Have Effectively Prevented Deadly Contamination of Crops

Washington, D.C.—Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an environmental assessment report on the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce earlier this year. It was the largest outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections in the United States since 2006, with 210 illnesses reported in 36 states, resulting in 96 hospitalizations, 27 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and five deaths.

The FDA report indicates that romaine on several farms was likely contaminated after being sprayed with crop protection chemicals diluted with water that harbored the deadly pathogen. Authorities found the outbreak strain in water samples taken from an irrigation canal adjacent to a large cattle feedlot, or confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). While the report acknowledges uncertainty regarding how the E. coli O157:H7 ended up in the canal, it notes that all of the available evidence points to transmission from the neighboring CAFO, which is operated by Five Rivers, a subsidiary of the Brazilian conglomerate JBS.

“The FDA’s report shows that CAFOs and crops do not mix well, and it calls into question whether the industry has an adequate response to prevent another tragedy like this one,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America.

Following the outbreak, the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement updated its food safety standards to require larger buffer zones between CAFOs and leafy green crops, more rigorous risk assessments, and added traceability and sanitation measures. The updates, however, do not require growers to test or treat irrigation water before applying it to crops. Nor do they require Five Rivers or other CAFOs to take any added actions to prevent their operations from contaminating water used on crops in the area.

“This environmental assessment points to two important breakdowns,” said Gremillion, “First, E. coli O157:H7, which typically lives in the intestinal tract of ruminant animals like cattle, got into the irrigation water supply. Second, the water got onto the crops without being treated or tested to assess whether microbial contamination was a problem. We need better protections against both types of events.”

In 2015, FDA finalized a rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that would have required microbiological testing of irrigation water sources, but implementation of those provisions has been delayed by as long as four years.

“FDA should speed up implementation of the agricultural water rule,” said Gremillion. “It would not offer perfect protection against another outbreak like this year’s, because it does not require testing specifically for E. coli O157:H7, however, it could help to identify a problem and, in general, it provides an important incentive to protect against contamination of irrigation water sources.”

“CAFOs like Five Rivers need to be held accountable as well,” said Gremillion. “Produce growers have taken a huge hit as a result of the romaine outbreak, and they have an economic incentive to invest in precautions against another outbreak. What are the incentives for companies like Five Rivers? They are not selling lettuce.”

Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010