Proposed FDA Agricultural Water Rule Seeks To Decrease Risks of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Produce farmers would have to undergo an annual assessment of water sources to identify potential vectors of foodborne illness outbreaks.

A series of proposed agricultural water rule changes have been introduced by federal health officials, which are intended to improve the safety of water sources used by farmers and distributors of produce, which could help reduce the risk of food poisoning outbreaks that have caused widespread illnesses in recent years.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption Relating to Agricultural Water last week, which would require comprehensive testing and bacteria mitigation strategies for water sources used for crops if approved and finalized.

Food poisoning impacts an estimated 48 million Americans annually, resulting in an average of nearly 130,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 fatalities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These foodborne outbreaks sicken on average one out of every six Americans and cost about 15.6 billion each year.

Specifically, produce carries a particularly high risk of contamination because it is often not adequately treated after being harvested to remove pathogens, and it is also one food group that is commonly eaten raw by consumers, rather than being cooked to kill bacteria.

The proposed rule changes would require an annual assessment of farms’ pre-harvest agricultural water to identify potential hazards. They would then manage their agricultural water quality based on the results of that assessment, implementing corrective or mitigation measures to reduce the risk of contamination.

“There have been far too many foodborne illness outbreaks possibly linked to pre-harvest agricultural water in recent years, including water coming from lands nearby produce farms.” Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, said in a press release. “If finalized, we’re confident this proposal would result in fewer outbreaks in the U.S. related to produce, protecting public health and saving lives.”

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The proposed rules are aimed directly at produce, because it is inherently more susceptible to pathogens since it is grown outdoors in soil, with weather influences and other environmental factors such as exposure to animal feces and irrigation systems using untreated water.

A high profile E. coli outbreak related to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona region was discovered in 2018, after at least 46 hospitalizations and caused 10 sickened individuals to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a serious type of kidney failure linked to food poisoning. Officials were able to identify the source of contamination by collecting samples from the region in the early stages of the outbreak, linking a strain of E. coli detected in some victims to a strain found in canal water used to irrigate the lettuce.

In November 2020, the FDA announced its Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network team had developed an investigation table designed to help identify food poisoning outbreaks earlier, allowing officials to notify the public sooner so consumers can take precautionary measures, such as avoiding potentially contaminated foods before a recall is announced.

The FDA has proposed several new technologies and tracing methodologies over the last several years in an effort to enhance traceability, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce contamination of food, and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures.

In September 2020, the FDA announced a proposed rule to advance traceability of foods, which establishes additional record keeping requirements for companies that manufacture, process pack, or hold foods the agency has designated as part of the Food Traceability List.

The proposed rule is a part of the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative” and would offer the agency the ability to track food at every step of the supply chain, especially leafy greens which have proven to be a challenge to detect origins during outbreaks.

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