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Water. Essential for life. Not just ours, but the foods that give us life. Without it, plants would whither. Food animals would perish. We would dehydrate. Everything would die. But could water be the very thing to blame for the new romaine e coli outbreak that is sweeping the United States so close to Thanksgiving?
But what happens when the water is contaminated? More importantly, what happens when irrigation water in the largest produce region of the United States is compromised? We are seeing this terrible outcome again with E. coli O157:H7 rearing yet again in the Yuma growing region. Romaine lettuce is making people sick again. While unfortunate, it is no surprise.
Positioned in the desert, you wouldn’t think Yuma County in Arizona would be known for its agriculture. Surprisingly, it ranks as the winter vegetable capital of the world, producing about 90% of the leafy greens grown in the United States between November and March. In fact, 9 salad plants produce bagged lettuce and salad mixes topping 2 million pounds of lettuce per day.
What makes this region so special? According to Yuma’s Agritourism site, “plentiful sunshine, rich soil, ample labor, and high-quality irrigation water” are the secret ingredients. That, along with 350 days of sunshine a year offers perfect conditions for the longest growing season in the country.
With less than 3 inches of rainfall each year, the Yuma farms replace rely on access to the Colorado River that flows nearby. With this goldmine, 100% of the county’s 7 irrigation districts draw from the Colorado River for production. “Every single field in the county is also laser-leveled and graded using GPS technology, making Yuma’s irrigation network one of the most efficient in the world.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is yet again advising consumers to avoid all things romaine. At least until more information is known about the outbreak. At this time 32 cases that has resulted in 13 hospitalization has occurred. One patient developed a complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome – a type of kidney failure associated with E. coli infection. This has affected 11 states so far, including: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. California is the biggest hit with 10 cases so far. There has been no reported death connected with this outbreak.
Our neighbors to the north in Canada are also involved in this outbreak, with 18 people infected with the same strain of E. coliO157:H7 found in American cases. These patients are from Ontario and Quebec.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), genetic analysis of samples taken from current outbreak patients found E. coli O157:H7 similar to a previous outbreak in the Fall of 2017 that was associated with leafy greens in the United States and narrowed to romaine in Canada. Interestingly, this strain of E. coli O157:H7 has no genetic link to the outbreak that occurred in the Spring of 2018.
The investigation has pointed to romaine lettuce in both the United States and Canadian cases. In patient interviews, almost 80% indicated consuming romaine lettuce in the week they got sick. Consequently, all roads lead back to Yuma. Again. Despite this knowledge, yet again no common grower, supplier, distributor, or brand of romaine lettuce has been identified. No recall has been called by the FDA. The investigation continues and Americans and Canadians who consume romaine lettuce are at risk again.
Though this outbreak investigation is ongoing, some answers were finally found in the last E.coli rendezvous with romaine in Yuma. Even though the outbreaks had ended with the growing season, investigators continued to look for answers. Results of the Yuma growing region environmental study were published in a notice posted by the FDA in June. Samples of water, soil, and manure were taken and analyzed. Canal water samples generated identification of an E. coli strain that is genetically similar to the outbreak strain from the Spring of 2018.
A cattle feedlot near the Colorado River is looking good for a potential source. The FDA indicates that while tests from limited samples at the feedlot in question did not show evidence of the bacterial strain, there is “no evidence in support of alternative explanations.”
While the FDA has not published the identity of the feedlot, the map and satellite images point to the McElhaney feedlot, then owned by JBS – the world’s largest processor of beef and pork. If the name JBS sounds familiar, there is a reason. This processing firm located in Tolleson, Arizona recently recalled almost 7 million pounds of ground beef products due to potential contamination with Salmonella Newport. More recently the firm’s Utah plant, Swift is the heart of another beef recall due to E. coli contamination (unrelated to this outbreak).
Growers in both Arizona and California have committed to doing what they can to prevent contaminated irrigation water from contaminating their crops. Some of this comes from the FDA, others come from a coalition of growers to do what’s best for producers and consumers.
Growers should be treating irrigation water that is drawn from canals that pass within 400 feet of cattle feedlots. They have also committed to tripling the distance between growing fields and cattle feedlots to keep a safe distance and increase space between irrigation source and potential cattle feedlot runoff.
“The industry as a whole took what happened seriously,” says Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement – formed after an E. colioutbreak linked to spinach grown in the Salinas Valley in 2006. “We took steps to raise what we consider to be an already high bar for food safety even higher,” he says. Horsfall is optimistic, indicating, “I think consumers can be assured that the industry is doing everything it can to ensure that the product is safe.”
Growers are also testing irrigation water monthly. These monthly water testing standards currently enforced by the growers’ group meet what the FDA has proposed under the food safety act rolling out. “All of our producers of leafy greens are required to test all of their water on a monthly basis,” says Horsfall. He just wishes that the FDA would finalize regulations to ensure compliance across the board.
With all of these ‘after-the-fact’ cautionary measures, the real cow – err. elephant in the room comes back to the cattle feedlots. The FDA has jurisdiction over farms, but the USDA has jurisdiction over cattle feedlots. It seems that the two agencies should partner up and create a hard line on the root of the problem. At least in this case, cattle feedlot runoff into bodies of water used for crop irrigation should be the top of the list.
While the country puts their romaine salads on hold, we again resume avoiding all things romaine. This is a great opportunity to explore other types of lettuces or even make it out to the local farmers market and meet a local farmer. Some even grow year-round in aquaponic green houses.
If you believe you have developed an E coli infection from eating romaine lettuce, we want you to know that an E coli Lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations. Our lawyer, Jory Lange became a lawyer to help make our communities and families safer.
If you or a loved one have become ill with E coli, you can call (833) 330-3663 for a free legal consultation or complete the form here.
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)