New Study To Identify Cause Of Yuma Lettuce E. Coli Outbreak

Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 1:50pm
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 8:21am
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
Romaine lettuce on grocery store shelves in 2018.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration announced a multi-year partnership with leafy greens industry leaders in Yuma to figure out what caused the major losses from crop contamination in the area last year.

The partnership was initiated following the spring 2018 E. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce that killed five people and made hundreds of others sick, nearly bankrupting the nation’s winter lettuce crop.

“So what we’re hoping to do is look at water over time, see if we can collect scat and fecal matter from animals in that region, really use that data to paint a more comprehensive picture,” said Dr. Channah Rock, water quality specialist at the University of Arizona and lead author of a new study on the matter.

Rock says the FDA initiated this study after the outbreak infected people across dozens of states. The outbreak also caused romaine lettuce prices to drop by as much at 60-70% during the months after.

The multiyear initiative includes the Arizona Department of Agriculture, the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District and local leafy greens growers. The goal is to better understand the ecology of human pathogens in the environment in the Yuma agricultural region, according to an FDA announcement.

FDA officials last month reported that a recent surveillance testing program of 118 lettuce samples targeting romaine from the region turned up clean.

This new study will involve sampling surface water, canal sediment, dust and scat, according to the release. An environmental assessment of the Yuma growing region narrowed the scope of the outbreak, according to an FDA release, but questions remain, including the specific E. coli source, how it was distributed and potential reservoirs for the outbreak strain.

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