Livestock operations with lettuce fields as neighbors may soon be getting visits, welcome or not, from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, plans to introduce the Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act. Her bill gives FDA the power to chase down the source of pathogen contamination no matter where it goes.

Three powerful activist organizations, Consumer Reports, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Consumer Federation of America, endorse the Gillibrand bill.

FDA investigations of five E. coli O157: H7 outbreaks involving romaine lettuce since late 2017 are limited to the originating produce farms. If, as suspected, nearby animal agriculture operations are contributing to the root cause of the outbreak, the FDA has not been able to pursue it.

Gillibrand’s legislation, the Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act, would expand the FDA’s authority to investigate other off-the-farm areas for the source of contamination to trace outbreaks of foodborne illness.

During one of last year’s E. coli O157: H7 outbreak connected to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region, samples were taken from irrigation canal water tested positive for the outbreak strain.  The canal was located near a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), suggesting that the feedlot was the likely source of the outbreak.  However, under current law,  the FDA was not allowed to access the feedlot to take microbial samples.

“Thanksgiving should be a time for celebration, but with a large family, meals comes the fear of food contamination that can lead to scary, and sometimes life-threatening illness. Foodborne illness makes tens of millions of Americans sick every year, and it is vital we work to prevent it and stop it from spreading,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I’m proud to announce the Expanded Food Safety Inspection Act, which would allow the FDA to investigate the sources of foodborne illness outbreaks fully. This would help stop the spread of the disease and help prevent future outbreaks. I urge my colleagues to support this bill and help improve food safety.”

The legislation would allow FDA to coordinate with state and local public health organizations also with USDA and the CDC “to better determine the source of outbreaks and give them the authority to investigate contamination from nearby farms.”

“This would help eliminate sources of contamination directly, decrease the chances of repeated outbreaks within the same region, and the quick recall of dangerous food products,” according to Gillibrand’s office.

Romaine was determined to be the source of an E.coli outbreak announced Nov.19. It expanded, sickening 40 people in 16 states by week’s end. FDA ordered all romaine from the Salinas growing region removed from store shelves. Any romaine without a known source also must be removed.

The fifth E. coli outbreak in two years involving romaine has infected 360 people and contributed to six deaths. Almost half of those stricken required hospital care.

Michael Hansen, a Ph.D. senior scientist at Consumer Reports, called on FDA to “immediately require growers to abide by strong standards to ensure irrigation water is safe and sanitary.”

“It’s also critical for the FDA to implement mandatory farm-to-fork industry recordkeeping requirements so it can quickly identify the source of foodborne illness outbreaks,” Hansen added.

While FDA says shoppers should avoid romaine with unknown origins or the Salinas growing region, Consumer Reports says it is “prudent and less confusing” to avoid romaine altogether.

“Much of the romaine lettuce on the market at this time of year is from Salinas,” says James E. Rogers, CR’s director of food safety research and testing. “Last year, also right before Thanksgiving, there was an E. coli O157: H7 outbreak and FDA and CDC warned people against eating any romaine lettuce and called on stores and restaurants to stop selling it.”

Labeling to identify the growing area for romaine was implemented after two outbreaks in 2018. Consumer Reports found flaws in the geographic labeling scheme.

The voluntary Leafy Green Marketing Agreements set requirements for growers in California and Arizona. Since the string of E. coli outbreaks began two years ago, both groups have stiffened their standards.

The standards upgrades included Increased buffers between lettuce fields and animal agricultural facilities.

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