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Romaine and E.coli: What can we do?

Produce safety is again in the national spotlight, as a multistate outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7 illnesses have been linked to romaine lettuce. At least 43 people have been sickened from 12 states, according to the most recent outbreak update from the CDC. 16 people have been hospitalized, and 1 person developed HUS from the infection, a serious illness that can result in kidney failure.

The lettuce has been traced back to Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California. After initially issuing a blanket warning to not consume any romaine at all, the CDC has since narrowed this warning to not consume romaine from the specific growing area of the Central Coastal region of California.  

Romaine's past troubles included MN

Earlier this year, another E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with romaine from the Yuma, AZ growing region sickened at least 210 people and caused 5 deaths, including 2 in Minnesota. 

While the two outbreaks are not related, there may be similarities. The outbreak earlier this summer was traced back to contaminated irrigation water. Similarly, a widespread E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2006 on fresh spinach was traced back to irrigation water contaminated with feces from cattle or wild deer. 

This current outbreak might also be traced back to contaminated irrigation water, although it will take some time before we know the source.

Thoughts from a local greens grower

Revol Greens, a greenhouse greens grower in Owatonna, MN said that the outbreak, right around the Thanksgiving holiday, was and continues to be a challenge. 

Here is a short Q and A with Brenden Krieg, sales manager for Revol.

Q. Have you felt any impacts from the romaine E. coli outbreak?

Yes, immediately we had to change our mixes to remove all romaine. There was a huge demand for spring mix without romaine immediately. We were able to change our growing mix quickly, so the impact was relatively small for us.

Obviously, this recall hurts the industry and it has a bad impact on the long term consumption of romaine, but it increases demand from both consumers and restaurants looking for other products. 

People are asking more questions, like how and where are their leafy greens grown.  So for most local farms, long term, it’s not a positive, but it does highlight the benefit of local and fresh.  

Q. What do you do to keep your greens as safe as possible? 

Water testing is the most important thing we do specifically for E. coli. We send our water samples in monthly to an independent lab and we do our own internal testing as well. 

Hygiene and handwashing is huge, and we always train new employees. We don’t have a lot of contact with our product, as a lot is cut by machine. We are vigilant about keeping mice and other animals out of the greenhouse, and use a pest control company that knows how to work with farms. We make sure we have a policy to not work when we are sick, and things like that.

Q. What messages would you give other farmers? 

Food safety needs to be taken seriously, and [farmers should] utilize the resources that are out there to help you. 
  • Make sure to train your employees about hygiene especially as new ones are brought on. Don’t assume they know your expectations for food safety. 
  • Attend a training and learn about these good food safety practices. The FSMA rule is a good start, to learn about these practices and connect with local resources.

GAPs Protect Farms and Consumers

So what can local farms do? Produce growers care deeply about their customer’s health and want people to continue to eat more fresh vegetables, especially locally-grown vegetables. 

The best way to protect your farm, customers and the local food supply is to learn about Good Agricultural Practices and implement them on your farm. This might start with attending an upcoming FSMA Produce Safety Rule training. You will get the most up-to-date summary of science-based recommendations to reduce risks in the production of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Farmer participants practice using 
the portable handwash stand in 
a FSMA Produce Safety Rule training
This training is required for all farms covered by the FSMA produce safety rule, but all farmers all welcome. See all upcoming training dates here.  (Farmers lead modules at each training, so you can hear exactly how other farmers approach these topics on their farms.)

What will I learn?

At the training you will learn about Good Agricultural Practices such as testing irrigation water regularly for the presence of generic E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination.  

Your farm's well water should be tested at least once a year, or even better, 2-3 times throughout the growing season for generic E. coli. Surface water sources like ponds, lakes and streams should be tested 5 times per season, since this water is much more vulnerable to contamination sources like runoff, wildlife and birds and it changes rapidly. 

Take care when using surface water for irrigation, as this water may contain harmful E. coli or other bacteria or viruses that can sicken customers.  Risk-reduction strategies for irrigation water are an example of what farmers talk about at these FSMA trainings.

Fields of leafy greens on Minnesota farm.

Water testing resources

Where can you find water testing laboratories to test your agricultural water used on the farm? See this new factsheet from the University of Minnesota that lists some of the water testing laboratories in the state that perform water testing for agricultural water in accordance with the new FSMA produce safety rule. 

Even if your farm does not need to be in compliance with this law, testing your water is one of the most basic things you can do to ensure your produce is as safe as possible for your consumers and this list of labs is a great place to start. 

Final thoughts...

The good thing is that basic food safety practices go hand-in-hand with marketing, recordkeeping for sales and efficiency improvements, and good postharvest quality and shelf life of products. Food safety practices are, and should continue to be, an important part of a vibrant and growing local food system.

For more information, see the University of Minnesota On-Farm GAPs education program

Author: Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, food safety

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