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Produce Industry In The U.S. To Step Up Produce Safety Due To Recent Outbreaks

Stephen Basore, director of food safety at a Florida romaine grower, said he expects more regulations and self-imposed industry guidelines.

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Lettuce, E.coli, Produce Industry
Romaine lettuce sits on the shelves as a shopper walks through the produce area of an Albertsons market in Simi Valley, Calif. VOA

After repeated food poisoning outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce, the produce industry is confronting the failure of its own safety measures in preventing contaminations.

The E. coli outbreak announced just before Thanksgiving follows one in the spring that sickened more than 200 people and killed five, and another last year that sickened 25 and killed one.

No deaths have been reported in the latest outbreak, but the dozens of illnesses highlight the challenge of eliminating risk for vegetables grown in open fields and eaten raw, the role of nearby cattle operations that produce huge volumes of manure and the delay of stricter federal food safety regulations.

A contested aspect of the regulation, for example, would require testing irrigation water for E. coli. The Food and Drug Administration put the measure on hold when the produce industry said such tests wouldn’t necessarily help prevent outbreaks. Additional regulations on sanitation for workers and equipment — other potential sources of contamination — only recently started being implemented.

 

Lettuce, E.Coli, Produce Industry
A crew member stands in a pile of discarded romaine lettuce leaves while working near Soledad, Calif., May 3, 2017. A current outbreak of E. coli traced to romaine lettuce has sickened 50 people in the U.S. and Canada. VOA

 

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he thinks the combination of rules, once fully in place, will make vegetables safer to eat.

“I don’t think any one element of this is going to be the magic bullet,” Gottlieb said.

Health officials say improved detection may make outbreaks seem more frequent. Still, that is intensifying pressure on growers and regulators to prevent, catch and contain contamination.

Prevention

It’s not yet known how romaine got contaminated in the latest outbreak.

The spring outbreak was traced to romaine from Yuma, Arizona. Irrigation water tainted with manure was identified as a likely culprit, and investigators noted the presence of a large animal feeding operation nearby.

Subsequently, growers in Arizona and California adjusted an industry agreement to expand buffer zones between vegetable fields and livestock. The industry says the change was in place for lettuce now being grown in Yuma, which hasn’t been implicated in the latest outbreak. But Trevor Suslow of the Produce Marketing Association said there isn’t consensus about the exact distances that might effectively prevent contamination.

 

Poultry, Produce Industry
Over 80% of UTIs caused by E.coli is found in poultry. Pixabay

 

He noted specific buffer zones aren’t required by the new federal rules on produce safety.

“They look to the industry to determine what is the appropriate distance,” Suslow said.

Growers in Yuma also started treating irrigation water that would touch plant leaves with chlorine to kill potential contaminants, Suslow said. But he said such treatment raises concerns about soil and human health.

Meanwhile, the proximity of produce fields to cattle operations is likely to continue posing a problem. Travis Forgues of the milk producer Organic Valley noted consolidation in the dairy industry is leading to bigger livestock operations that produce massive volumes of manure.

Testing

Already, the industry agreement in Arizona and California requires leafy green growers to test water for generic E. coli.

But James Rogers, director of food safety research at Consumer Reports, said it’s important to make water testing a federal requirement. Since romaine is often chopped up and bagged, a single contaminated batch from one farm that skips testing could make a lot of people sick, he said.

 

robot, produce industry
A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at Iron Ox, a robotic indoor farm, in San Carlos, California. VOA

 

Teressa Lopez of the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement also said federal regulation can ensure greater compliance, even though the industry agreement has stricter measures.

Despite industry measures implemented after a spinach outbreak more than a decade ago, health officials note d this month there have been 28 E. coli outbreaks linked to leafy greens since 2009.

The produce industry says the failure to prevent the Yuma outbreak could also reflect the limitations of testing water for generic E. coli.

Elizabeth Binh, a food science expert at Cornell University, said the tests look for the amount of fecal matter in water. The problem is, “some feces has pathogens in it, some feces doesn’t,” said Binh, who is part of a federal program helping farmers comply with the new produce regulations.

Testing for specific E. coli strains that are harmful is more difficult, and doesn’t rule out the possibility of other harmful bacteria, Binh said.

E.Coli, Produce Industry
Scientists compared faecal samples from 300 surfers and non-surfers to assess whether the surfers’ guts contained E.coli bacteria that were able to grow in the presence of cefotaxime. Pixabay

Containment

Whole-genome sequencing is making it easier to detect outbreaks, which is pressuring the produce industry.

The FDA warned against all romaine last week because it said it was able to identify it as a likely source early enough. The agency narrowed its warning to romaine from California’s Central Coast after the produce industry agreed to label romaine with harvest dates and regions, so people know what’s OK to eat.

The labeling is voluntary, and the industry said it will evaluate whether to extend it to other leafy greens. Gottlieb said improving traceability would allow targeted health alerts that don’t hurt the entire industry. The FDA recently hired a former Walmart executive who used blockchain technology to improve traceability in the retailer’s supply chain.

Also Read: Researchers Develop New Test To Detect E.Coli In Food Quickly

Stephen Basore, director of food safety at a Florida romaine grower, said he expects more regulations and self-imposed industry guidelines.

“Anytime there is an issue, the immediate response is saying our protocols aren’t enough,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

U.S. Pentagon Emits More Greenhouse Gases Than Portugal, Study Finds

The Pentagon, which oversees the U.S. military, released about 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide

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U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
FILE - The Pentagon building is seen in Washington. VOA

The United States creates more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions through its defense operations alone than industrialized countries such as Sweden and Portugal, researchers said Wednesday.

The Pentagon, which oversees the U.S. military, released about 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2017, according to the first study to compile such comprehensive data, published by Brown University.

The Pentagon’s emissions were “in any one year … greater than many smaller countries’ greenhouse gas emissions,” the study said.

If it were a country, its emissions would make it the world’s 55th-largest contributor, said Neta Crawford, the study’s author and a political scientist at Boston University.

U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
FILE – Air pollution hangs over the skyline as the sun rises over Beijing’s central business district, Jan. 14, 2013. VOA

“There is a lot of room here to reduce emissions,” Crawford said.

Request for comments to the Pentagon went unanswered.

Troop movements

Using and moving troops and weapons accounted for about 70% of its energy consumption, mostly due to the burning of jet and diesel fuel, Crawford said.

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It dwarfed yearly emissions by Sweden, which the international research project Global Carbon Atlas ranks 65th worldwide for its of CO2 emissions.

Pentagon emissions were higher than those of Portugal, ranked 57th by the Global Carbon Atlas, said Crawford.

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for climate change, followed by the United States.

The Pentagon called climate change “a national security issue” in a January report to Congress and has launched multiple initiatives to prepare for its impact.

U.S., Pentagon, Greenhouse Gases
The United States creates more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Pixabay

Global temperatures are on course for an increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5.4-9.0 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, far overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2 C or less, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said in November.

Four degrees Celsius of warming would increase more than five times the influence of climate on conflict, according to a study published in Nature magazine on Wednesday.

Improvements

Crawford said the Pentagon had reduced its fuel consumption significantly since 2009, including by making its vehicles more efficient and moving to cleaner sources of energy at bases.

Also Read- Pakistani Doctors Blame Quacks for Alarming Rise in HIV Cases: Report

It could reduce them further by cutting fuel-heavy missions to the Persian Gulf to protect access to oil, which were no longer a top priority as renewable energy gained ground, she said.

“Many missions could actually be rethought, and it would make the world safer,” she said. (VOA)