Leaders at the Food and Drug Administration charged with implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act knew agricultural water standards weren’t going to be met by someone in Washington D.C. snapping their fingers.

They decided more time for education and training would be required. The original 2018 compliance date for the FSMA water quality standards was moved forward to 2022. The FDA enlisted 45 state agricultural departments to help get growers and others in the food supply chain up to speed.

But this week, after FDA released findings from its investigation into this past November’s E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, the agency learned its patience has a price. One of the authors of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), who is still a congressional leader on food safety, let FDA know she’s seen enough delay.

“For all the agency’s bluster on improving traceability, the FDA has done little to advance real actions that would prevent food outbreaks in the first place,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT.

Rosa DeLauro

“The FDA’s investigations into last year’s romaine lettuce recalls have confirmed what we already knew to be true: dirty irrigation water contaminates produce and makes people sick. The fact that people are dying and lives are being destroyed while the FDA caves to big corporate interests is unconscionable. FDA must take its own findings to heart and implement science-based standards to test irrigation water. Eight years after the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law, it is long past time these important rules went into effect — not delayed into the next decade. Enough is enough.”

DeLauro said investigators positively identified the outbreak strain in the sediment of an irrigation reservoir on the implicated farm in Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County, CA..

“These findings build upon FDA’s Environmental Assessment into last year’s E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce produced in the Yuma growing region. That investigation also positively identified the outbreak strain in contaminated irrigation water, which was found in three separate locations along an irrigation canal used by multiple farms. Together, both outbreaks resulted in 272 illnesses, 121 hospitalizations, and 5 deaths” the U.S. representative said.

She said despite scientific evidence that contaminated agricultural irrigation water poses serious risks to produce safety, the FDA is continuing to delay implementation of the Produce Safety Rule’s testing requirements of agricultural water under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The original compliance date was set for 2018. However, under current policy, FDA will not begin any enforcement of the water testing rules until at least 2022.

DeLauro is chair of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus and a senior Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over funding and oversight of the FDA.

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