FDA Blames CAFO for Romaine Lettuce E. coli Contamination

Need another reason to oppose factory farming? Here it is: An FDA investigation found that a potential cause of the 2018 E. coli outbreak traced to lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona, may have been a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO.

The path to that theory has been a long and winding one, as foodborne illness investigations can be complicated and frustrating. And while the feedlot operator involved — Five Rivers Cattle Feeding — insists that there’s no definitive evidence, the situation is sparking a conversation about how we grow and process our food.

This outbreak involved romaine lettuce contaminated with a particularly virulent form of E. coli bacteria that produces a deadly toxin. Five people died, and hundreds of others were sickened — including over 25 people who developed kidney failure because of their exposure to contaminated lettuce.

It took time to track the outbreak — not to a specific farm, but to the broader lettuce-growing region of Yuma, Arizona, which produces a substantial share of the nation’s romaine in fall and winter. The fact that a single farm wasn’t responsible made it more complicated to figure out the bacteria’s origin; it wasn’t as simple as a contaminated processing plant or farm where employees didn’t have access to adequate hygiene.

The particular strain involved is one found primarily in animals, so as soon as investigators identified where the contaminated lettuce was coming from, they could start looking at the surrounding area. What they found was a CAFO that held up to 100,000 cattle at peak, situated right along canals used for irrigation. Investigators theorize that one possible explanation for the outbreak may be the use of contaminated irrigation water — though it’s notable that the E. coli was concentrated in romaine, not other crops grown in the region.

Channah Rock, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, provided one of many industry theories to NPR that it could be dust from the feedlot that settled on the leaves of romaine plants. Rock says while this is a plausible hypothesis identified by members of the Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force, a direct link to any particular source remains unknown, and the FDA and CDC are still investigating.

Contamination associated with feedlots is a recurring theme. Animals in close quarters tend to be more prone to illness, and produce vast quantities of manure that has to be dealt with. Pollution from these facilities can disrupt local ecosystems and cause problems at neighboring farms. Frustratingly, even if you don’t eat meat, the safety of your diet can be impacted by factory farming practices.

The production of animals for milk and meat in close proximity to crops grown for human consumption may be a bad idea — especially in the case of crops typically eaten raw and sometimes unwashed, like greens. Furthermore, concentrating lettuce production — or anything else — in a limited geographic area can cause significant supply chain disruptions.

When contamination spreads across a region, a seemingly simple product like spinach may suddenly become almost impossible to obtain, with distributors unable to source a safe supply. Diversifying what we grow and where can help alleviate stress in these situations.

The FDA’s report has not been finalized, and it will include sampling data and other material from throughout the investigation. If the agency confirms that a feedlot was involved, it will validate the suspicions of numerous people with an interest in food safety.

In the meantime — with farmers strategizing what to grow in the coming months — this is an excellent time to have a conversation about the conditions around farms, and how they might affect the integrity of their crops.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Creative Commons

109 comments

Marie W
Marie W19 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Jack Y
Jack Y1 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y1 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J1 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J1 months ago

thanks for sharing

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rachel r
Past Member 4 months ago

Thank you!

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Gino C
Past Member 5 months ago

Thank you

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hELEN h
hELEN h6 months ago

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Leo C
Leo C6 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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danii p
danii p6 months ago

tyfs

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