August 26, 2019

USDA releases results of Yuma leafy greens E. coli testing

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found almost no salmonella or shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in commercial coolers in Yuma, Arizona, in tests conducted months after it linked an outbreak of foodborne illness to Romaine lettuce produced in the area.

The FDA recently released the results of tests it conducted Dec. 17, 2018, after Yuma had begun its winter harvest season. Personnel took 118 samples for each of the two pathogens — each sample contained 10 subsamples, and each subsample consisted of one head or two hearts of Romaine. They found no strains of concern to human health — only one STEC strain that was determined to be “non-pathogenic.”

“The findings of this assignment suggest that there was no widespread salmonella or STEC contamination of romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region during the period when sampling occurred,” according to an FDA statement posted Aug. 14.

The original outbreak of foodborne illness occurred in March 2018, after the end of Yuma’s harvest. The outbreak appeared over by the end of June, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In total, the outbreak involved 210 people in 36 states, and resulted in 96 hospitalizations, 27 cases of kidney failure and five deaths, according to the FDA statement.

The FDA’s goals for the December 2018 tests were to “determine if the target pathogens were present in the romaine lettuce sampled, and to respond swiftly in the event of detections to keep contaminated product from reaching consumers.” It concentrated the tests in Yuma due to an earlier assessment that concluded that water from an irrigation canal in Yuma County likely led to contamination of romaine lettuce eaten during the spring 2018 E. coli outbreak. Federal investigations and tracebacks implicated one farm in particular but also indicated other Yuma farms may also have contributed to the outbreak. Agencies followed up with a letter of recommendations to the growers and others in the industry.

That Pathogens couldn’t be found in Yuma’s commercial coolers seems to be good news, if not a reason to relax safety precautions.

“As a next step, the FDA is working with leafy green stakeholders in the Yuma region to consider a longer-term environmental study to identify and control risks that will prevent future outbreaks, with the ultimate goal of protecting consumers,” according to the FDA’s recent statement.