While the majority of the food we eat in the United States each day is perfectly safe for us, there are incidents where certain types of foods become harmful if not deadly. In many cases, these situations involve various types of produce, such as lettuce that may be contaminated with salmonella or E. coli. This was the case with 37 year-old William Whitt, who after eating two salads from a local pizza shop developed life-threatening symptoms related to E. coli.
According to the CDC, E. coli was found to have contaminated romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ and distributed across the United States. This lettuce, used in Mr. Whitt’s salads as well as by thousands of other unsuspecting consumers, ultimately led to 210 people in 36 states being sickened, and was eventually attributed to five deaths and 27 incidents of acute kidney failure.
Upon further investigation, the CDC determined the lettuce became contaminated due to dirty farm water that originated in a Yuma canal used for crop irrigation. According to officials at the CDC, this has unfortunately become an all-too-common problem over the past decade. Based on current United States food safety guidelines, growers are not required to test their water for pathogens such as E. coli. As a result, it is becoming more likely that pathogens such as these can wind up on various fruits and vegetables.
While this outbreak and other incidents make it sound as if no rules and regulations have been in place to protect consumers, that has not been the case. In 2011, Congress did create rules for produce growers to begin testing their farm water. However, upon the Trump Administration taking control of the White House in 2016, new officials put in place within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, bowing to pressure from farm lobbyists and the orders of the new administration to roll back Obama-era regulations, decided to delay the water-testing rules for at least four more years.
Along with these rollbacks in regulations, the FDA is also considering other changes, such as requiring produce growers to test less frequently or perhaps find alternative ways to test their farm water. As these potential changes are discussed, many in the food safety industry are baffled by the decisions. As food safety experts from the University of California-Davis have noted, with science clearly appearing to show the link between dirty farm water and the increased number of E. coli and other pathogen outbreaks, delaying new regulations in water testing will likely lead to even more outbreaks that are larger in scale and much more dangerous to consumers.
Based on results from previous outbreaks, most food safety experts point to contaminated irrigation water being the major issue with produce growers. In many situations, livestock or wild animal feces flow into nearby creeks. Afterwards, the contaminated water then finds its way into wells, and is eventually water that is sprayed onto produce. When this occurs and the produce is then harvested, processed, and sold to various stores across the nation, it can be far too easy for a large-scale outbreak of E. coli, salmonella, or other pathogen to occur.
While some farm groups contend water-testing is too expensive, an FDA analysis paints an interesting picture. According to the data, relaxing or eliminating the water-testing rules would save growers $12 million annually, but would also lead to consumers spending $108 million per year in medical expenses related to the outbreaks.
As the politicians, lobbyists, farmers, and scientists continue to debate this issue, it is the consumers who are left to wonder about the safety of their food. Learn more about Product Safety Lawsuits.