FDA Releases Possible Factors for 2018 E. Coli Outbreaks

Leafy Greens Industry and Public Were Severely Impacted

By Hank Giclas, Western Growers Sr. Vice President, Strategic Planning, Science & Technology

Recently, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration released an environmental assessment that provides an overview of factors that potentially contributed to the contamination of romaine lettuce with E. coli that was implicated in a 2018 multi-state foodborne illness outbreak. The assessment can be found here and includes the background on the outbreak; the environmental team approach; and factors potentially contributing to the introduction and spread of E. coli; along with recommendations for the prevention E. coli in leafy greens.

FDA recommends that growers and processors of leafy greens:

  • assure that all agricultural water (water that directly contacts the harvestable portion of the crop) used by growers is safe and adequate for its intended use (including agricultural water used for application of crop protection chemicals);
  • assess and mitigate risks related to land uses near or adjacent to growing fields that may contaminate agricultural water or leafy greens crops directly (e.g. nearby cattle operations or dairy farms, manure or composting facility);
  • verify that food safety procedures, policies, and practices, including supplier controls for fresh-cut processors, are developed and consistently implemented on farms (both domestic and foreign) and in fresh-cut produce manufacturing/processing food facilities to minimize the potential for contamination and/or spread of human pathogens;
  • when a foodborne pathogen is identified in the growing or processing environment, in agricultural inputs (e.g., agricultural water), in raw agricultural commodities or in fresh-cut, ready-to-eat produce, a root cause analysis should be performed to determine the likely source of the contamination, if prevention measures have failed, and whether additional measures are needed to prevent a reoccurrence; and
  • Local in-depth knowledge and actions are critical in helping resolve potential routes of contamination of leafy greens in the Yuma growing region, including Imperial County and Yuma County, moving forward. FDA urges other government and non-government entities, produce growers and trade associations in Yuma and Imperial Counties to further explore possible source(s) and route(s) of contamination associated with the outbreak pathogen and with other foodborne pathogens of public health significance. This information is critical to developing and implementing short- and long-term remediation measures to reduce the potential for another outbreak associated with leafy greens or other fresh produce commodities.

The findings in the Environmental Assessment appear to provide little new information but will be closely reviewed by Western Growers and others as part of our industry’s ongoing efforts to ensure food safety.

Immediately after the outbreak, Western Growers collaborated with the leafy greens industry to help lead a task force that would assess the source of the outbreak, as well as develop recommendations to prevent future outbreaks. While sources of contamination remain uncertain, the task force made concrete recommendations to industry for assuring water is safe and adequate, assessing and mitigating risk from adjacent land uses as well as others to address risks from equipment and climatic conditions.  These recommendations go well beyond the requirements of the FDA’s own Produce Safety Rule and have already been incorporated into the California and Arizona LGMA requirements. State auditors are now charged with verifying adherence to these new controls through announced and un-announced audits that occur throughout the seasons. The industry is furthering its efforts to learn more including through research guided by respected entities such as the Center for Produce Safety and working directly with California and Arizona academic teams. There is a strong and broad commitment to continually work to improve our food safety system.

Other related information posted by FDA includes:

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Downey Mildew Continues to Challenge Leafy Greens

Downey Mildew Continues to Threaten Lettuce and Spinach

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm Director

One of the many facets that makes California Agriculture so successful is the hard-working group of farm advisors who assist growers with a multitude of plant and pest issues. Steve Koike, plant pathology farm advisor for UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cooperative Extension in Monterey County, noted, “It has been a fairly typical year, and I wouldn’t say any particular new disease has been noteworthy, which is good for the growers.”

Steve Koike, farm advisor of UC ANR Cooperative Extension, Monterey County.
Steve Koike, farm advisor of UC ANR Cooperative Extension, Monterey County.

Koike, whose research focuses primarily on understanding disease systems, identifying new diseases and examining new methods of disease control, said growers “don’t like to see new diseases come out of our work. The main concern, downey mildew, continues to be challenging for both lettuce and spinach growers.”

“We started in the early spring with heavy mildew on both lettuce and spinach crops,” explained Koike, “and it’s remained pretty heavy on lettuce throughout the spring and early summer here. Spinach downey mildew goes up and down, which is not unusual.” he said. “We had some heavy mildew weeks for spinach growers, then we didn’t hear anything, then we heard that it had died down, and then ten days ago there was another surge. It’s one of those things that is hard to predict because it is variable.”

Since starting his farm advising position in 1989, Koike has been involved in educational programs and applied research in vegetable, fruit and ornamental crop diseases. Because downey mildew can overwinter in perennial crops, its continued occurrence is not too surprising.

“Earlier this year, Jim Correll, my cooperator at University of Arkansas, other leaders in the industry and I finally did confirm race 16, a new biotype of downey mildew. A few years ago, it was only race 12; it is moving target,” he noted.

“Although we have confirmed Race 16 on spinach, we are a little concerned because there are reports of disease on some race 16-resistant varieties.” Koike said.

Featured image: Downey Mildew (Source: UCANR Cooperative Extension, Tehama County)

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