News Feature | April 5, 2019

Following E. Coli Outbreak, Romaine Growers Intensify Water Treatment

By Peter Chawaga

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Following multiple health scares in recent months, California’s produce industry will be taking some new water treatment steps.

“Growers in the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement [LGMA] will soon be sanitizing ‘open-source’ water used on their crops, which has been the focus of at least two recent E. coli outbreaks traced to leafy greens,” The Packer reported.

A connection between romaine and E. coli made national news in November and required a recall, and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) report on the outbreak traced it back to a California reservoir. This would be the type of “open-source” water that will now require additional treatment per the LGMA, a membership group meant to protect public health. A similar outbreak was found and traced to open-source water in April 2018.

“According to the FDA report, the water was ‘most likely not effectively treated with a sanitizer and this may have led to contaminated water directly contacting romaine lettuce after harvest or by the washing/rinsing harvest equipment food contact surfaces,’” per The Packer.

And beyond the health issues, outbreaks like the one in November create a lasting stigma around the produce that LGMA depends on.

“The tragic illnesses and persistent negative publicity surrounding these [recalls] has eroded confidence in the healthy products the leafy greens industry produces every day and draws attention away from the food safety advancements made by many members of the leafy green industry,” Mark Borman, the president of a California wholesaler that will now only purchase produce that meets the new standards, told The Packer.

Particularly, water used during “overhead irrigation” will have to undergo the more strict treatment process, which will include the use of chlorine and chlorine dioxide.

“For the past three months, the leafy greens industries in California and Arizona have been developing new water guidelines,” according to Food Safety Magazine. “There is broad agreement that using untreated surface waters for overhead irrigation during the final weeks of production presents an elevated risk. Changes to the LGMA’s required food safety practices (metrics) to reduce this risk are being developed with input from food safety scientists and several LGMA member companies.”

At the time of this writing, it was not clear what additional expense the treatment efforts might require or how exactly the process would be undertaken at farms. But it’s clear that water treatment is seen as a potential prevention to a repeat of one of the most significant health headlines from last year.