News Feature | October 10, 2018

Dirty Irrigation Water Poses Health Risks

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Irrigation water used by farmers appears to be making people sick.

“For more than a decade, it’s been clear that there’s a gaping hole in American food safety: Growers aren’t required to test their irrigation water for pathogens such as E. coli. As a result, contaminated water can end up on fruits and vegetables,” WIRED reported.

“After several high-profile disease outbreaks linked to food, Congress in 2011 ordered a fix, and produce growers this year would have begun testing their water under rules crafted by the Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration,” the report stated.

But the Trump administration, by way of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), decided to peel back those rules under pressure from farmers. This move occurred six months before last spring’s romaine lettuce health crisis.

The lettuce outbreak “was linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona,” Capital Public Radio reported, noting that the outbreak “caused five deaths and sickened more than 200 people across 36 states.”

It was “the largest outbreak of the killer bacterial infection in a decade,” NBC News reported.

Despite the outbreak, the FDA does not appear to be reconsidering its decision to curtail rules for farmers. Some scientists say they are dumbfounded by that, according to WIRED.

“Mystifying, isn’t it?” said Trevor Suslow of the University of California, Davis, per WIRED. “If the risk factor associated with agricultural water use is that closely tied to contamination and outbreaks, there needs to be something now. I can’t think of a reason to justify waiting four to six to eight years to get started.”

Farmers already test their water on a voluntary basis, but that might not be enough, according to WIRED. Voluntary measures began after three people died due to problem spinach from California in 2006.

This year’s problem lettuce “would have been covered by those agreements. But his story illustrates the limits of a voluntary safety program and how lethal E. coli can be even when precautions are taken by farms and processors,” WIRED reported.