New Lettuce Rules: Feds Ignore The Cow In The Room

Top FDA administrators say the agency’s new plan for the safety of leafy greens specifically addresses problems, but a key part of the conversation is getting little more than lip service according to some observers.

Vague references to vague actions planned regarding animal feedlots next to and near fresh produce fields are less than robust say leaders from Consumer Reports and Food & Water Watch.

The FDA’s 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan dives into the topic of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in previously unmatched detail, according to Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the Food and Drug Administration.

After unveiling the plan, Yiannas told Food Safety News one thing new in the 2020 document is the review of adjacent land use.

He said it doesn’t matter how large an operation is, from a family farm to a 120,000-head feedlot like one in Arizona that is adjacent to romaine lettuce fields and irrigation canals, animal agriculture has an impact on nearby produce fields.

The specific impact is one unknown the FDA is chasing in its effort to quash foodborne illness outbreaks linked to fresh leafy greens.

“We are working on how to work with the USDA to review these issues,” Yiannas told Food Safety News.

The FDA’s press release on the new rule also makes the barest mention of another known source of produce contamination and food poisoning – migrant farmworks who fail to make use of available toilets, handwashing stations, or both. [Further resources below.] – Headline Health editor

 The 2020 FDA plan has two references to animal agriculture.

Increase Awareness and Address Concerns Around Adjacent and Nearby Land Use: Adjacent and nearby land use, particularly land use involving livestock production, has the potential to be a source of pathogens, especially STEC, that can contaminate produce. More focus and work are needed to better understand how to evaluate and mitigate potential hazards.

2020 Action:

  • Provide education and technical assistance to government partners and industry stakeholders regarding potential impacts of adjacent and nearby land use on produce safety.

Adjacent and Nearby Land Use: Activities occurring on nearby or adjacent land can influence or contribute to produce contamination. Information about adjacent or nearby land uses can help growers implement effective mitigation strategies.

2020 Actions:

  • Collaborate with federal and state partners, research organizations, and industry stakeholders to identify existing data and knowledge on the impact of adjacent and nearby land use on leafy greens growing areas.
  • Prioritize collection of additional data and information that will help growers implement effective science-based mitigation strategies.
  • Work with government partners and industry stakeholders to explore the feasibility of implementing pre-harvest best management strategies for cattle raised near leafy green growing areas and encourage research into pre-harvest mitigation strategies for cattle.

Yiannas said in addition to working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA is in touch with the Environmental Protection Agency because animal operations of 1,000 head or more are under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

A representative from the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch said it is clear that there is a link between E. coli outbreaks traced to romaine lettuce and nearby animal operations. Less clear is the blur of red tape when it comes to jurisdiction.

“It is my understanding that when FDA attempted to take additional samples from the Arizona CAFO near the romaine lettuce field implicated in the 2018 outbreak, it was stopped from doing so,” said Food & Water Watch’s Tony Corbo, senior government affairs representative.

“That CAFO has the capacity to house as many as 100,000 cattle.  The agency had collected an initial 6 samples from that feedlot. When FDA returned to take additional samples, the agency was refused access. It is important that the (situating) of CAFOs and produce fields needs to be regulated so that runoff from the feedlots doesn’t contaminate the produce. And, investigations into the cause of foodborne illness outbreaks cannot be impeded.”

Some observers contend if EPA inspectors would accompany outbreak investigators, the FDA’s staff could collect as many samples as they want from feedlots.

In an effort to give the FDA more access to property for testing during outbreak investigations, a U.S. representative and senator are each sponsoring legislation to give the agency new investigatory authority.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Rosa Delauro, D-CT, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, would give the FDA the ability to access and test feedlots during outbreak investigations of FDA regulated food. 

Reaction about the FDA’s 2020 plan from the iconic Consumer Reports organization was luke warm.

James E. Rogers, director of food-safety research and testing at CR, said:

“This proposal is a decent start. While it outlines areas where testing and surveillance need to improve, nothing in it seems to involve actual regulation, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of specifics, or a timeline for when the various steps that are supposed to make consumers safer will be implemented.”

Rogers also hit on a topic closely related to concerns about animal feeding operations adjacent to or near produce growing fields — irrigation water.

An investigation into a 2018 E. coli outbreak found the outbreak strain of the pathogen in water from an open canal running alongside a 120,000-head CAFO in Arizona. However, that strain was not found in the feedlot samples.

A major omission, Rogers said, is that the plan doesn’t include expediting water-testing rules that were laid out in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.

Those rules, which require more testing of more water samples, were supposed to take effect in 2018, but they have been postponed until at least 2022. Yiannas said the agency will publish a proposed rule later this year.

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