FDA Announces New Recommendations, Plans After Analyzing 2020 Leafy Greens E. Coli Outbreak

The source of repeated E. Coli outbreaks involving leafy green vegetables over the past few years may be cattle located uphill from growing areas, according to a new FDA analysis.

In a new report released on April 6, the FDA detailed its review of a Fall 2020 outbreak of Shiga Toxin-producing E.coli 0157:H7 illnesses, focusing on a series of leafy green outbreaks in the California Central Coast, specifically the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria growing areas, which have been occurring every Fall since 2017.

According to the FDA, investigators found the same outbreak strain in a sample of cattle feces collected on a roadside one mile uphill from a produce farm, which may help explain the problems.

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A slew of E. coli outbreaks have plagued leafy vegetable growers in recent years, as officials struggled to identify the source of the outbreak, which affected more than two dozen people in 12 different states in late 2020.

The FDA issued another food recall for romaine lettuce in November 2020 after random sampling produced positive tests for E. Coli in the Michigan. That romaine lettuce outbreak was later linked to more than a dozen food poisoning cases across 20 states and was also linked to produce from Salinas, California. The strain of E. Coli found in those cases is the same strain found during a recent FDA investigation into the foodborne illnesses.

The report focuses on the role cattle grazing on agricultural lands near leafy greens fields have on increasing the risk of produce contamination, especially where it can be spread by water, wind, or other means. Each sampling tested positive for the same strain of bacteria that sickened others.

The FDA warns cattle grazing lands located near growing areas will continue to be sources of contamination for vegetable outbreaks for the foreseeable future. Other reports conducted since 2013 emphasize the proximity of cattle as a contributing factor for food borne illness.

Growers should be aware of adjacent cattle land use practices as a risk factor and implement risk assessments and risk mitigation strategies, the agency advises.

The new report also includes updates to the Leafy Greens Action Plan, which renewed an emphasis on preventing contamination form adjacent farmland with cattle and a renewed commitment to completing actions that were difficult to accomplish in 2020 due to challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The update includes three key trends in the contamination of leafy greens by E. coli in recent years: reoccurring strain, reoccurring region, and reoccurring issues with activities on adjacent land.

Other recommendations for growers in the Central Coast region include focusing on identifying where the reoccurring strain of pathogenic E. coli is originating and the likely routes of contamination. Recommendations include participation in the California Longitudinal Study and the California Agricultural Neighbors workgroup.

The FDA also recommends growers institute root cause analysis when pathogens are identified during microbiological surveys, to determine how the contamination occurred and to establish prevention measures. They should identify crops likely contaminated and avoid harvesting those crops. More so, growers should focus on improving traceability to identify the source of outbreaks more quickly.

”Although the FDA is keenly focused on taking steps to help mitigate recurring leafy green contamination events, we alone cannot fix this issue,” wrote FDA officials. “Industry leadership and collaboration among growers, processors, retailers, state partners and the broader agricultural community is critical to reducing foodborne illnesses.”

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