FDA slashed Obama rules intended to prevent all this devastating E. coli

Yuma lettuce fields
Public Domain Romaine lettuce fields, Yuma, Arizona. (Jeff Vanuga / USDA)

New water testing rules were slated to go into effect last January – Trump's FDA has delayed them for at least another 4 years.

When we think about food poisoning, common sense brings to mind things like raw chicken and mishandled pork. But somehow, thanks to the state of modern agriculture, the real culprits are turning out to be seemingly innocuous leaves.

This year alone we have seen two dramatic E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce. In April we had the Yuma romaine fiasco, the largest outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections in the U.S. since 2006, with 210 reported illnesses from 36 states, resulting in 96 hospitalizations, 27 cases of kidney failure and five deaths, according to the FDA. And of course there was the Great Thanksgiving Romaine Disaster of 2018, in which the CDC warned people to not only not buy any romaine lettuce whatsoever, but to sanitize refrigerators that may have housed any romaine as well. This latest outbreak, still ongoing, is thus far spread across 12 states with 43 illnesses and 16 hospitalizations. And remember, many illnesses go unreported.

A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal explains why salad greens have become so prone to pathogens. First of all, they are most often eaten raw – but also, irrigation water is a prime source of foodborne illnesses. "In some cases, the feces of livestock or wild animals flow into a creek. Then the tainted water seeps into wells or is sprayed onto produce, which is then harvested, processed and sold at stores and restaurants," Reveal writes.

It's been obvious for years that we have a problem here; amazingly, growers are not required to test irrigation water for things like E. coli. Which means that water contaminated with feces and bacteria can end up nourishing fruits and vegetables ... and hello, foodborne illness outbreak.

In 2011, Obama's FDA decided to do something about this by creating a new rule requiring growers to, get this, test the water! The new rule was supposed to go into effect in January of 2018. But then ... enter Trump stage right. As Reveal notes:

"President Donald Trump’s FDA – responding to pressure from the farm industry and Trump’s order to eliminate regulations – shelved the water-testing rules for at least four years."

Under the current White House plan, large growers do not have to start inspecting their water systems and testing water for pathogens until 2022. And they have until 2024 to make sure that water that comes in contact with produce does not contain E. coli above certain levels.

It's funny (as in not funny) that when the FDA announced that they were nixing the rules for now, food safety experts expressed concern that this might not go so well. In the country's biggest outbreaks, inspectors have traced E. coli to contaminated water – so why in the world should growers not be required to test?

“Mystifying, isn’t it?” Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis, told Reveal. “If the risk factor associated with agricultural water use is that closely tied to contamination and outbreaks, there needs to be something now. … I can’t think of a reason to justify waiting four to six to eight years to get started.”

Well, aside from the fact that delaying the new rules would save growers $12 million per year. And meanwhile, is expected to cost consumers $108 million per year in medical costs, according to the FDA. Essentially, it's like a tax cut for growers and a tax hike for lettuce eaters.

In the meantime, I maintain that the shelving of the new rules actually hurts growers. Sure, they may save money, but how much do they lose with each new outbreak? With such a loosey-goosey food system, unless one is shopping from local farms, we don't even know where our food comes from. Which means that sometimes the government has to issue overall warnings, like "do not eat any romaine lettuce at all whatsoever," instead of being able to warn consumers about eating produce from specific areas.

And with that in mind, now lettuce leaders have decided to start giving consumers more information about where their produce originates from. Politico reports:

"Major distributors in the leafy greens industry – including Fresh Express, Dole, and Taylor Farms – have agreed to voluntarily label the region in which their romaine lettuce was grown as well as the date after which it was harvested."

This will act as a bit of a safety net for growers who would be able to continue selling greens coming from areas not linked to a specific outbreak. But it's also a pretty amazing step for a food system that is notoriously untraceable, and that consumers suffer because of. The more we know about where our food comes from, the more informed choices we can make. Not all of us can shop at a local farmers market, and not all of us are willing to survive on kale alone during the colder months (though the arguments are getting more and more convincing to do just that!) – so location labeling is definitely progress.

That said, it's interesting that the onus for avoiding a food poisoning debacle has been placed on the growers and consumers. We need more government regulation – at the very least, we need water testing rules.

Had the rules slated to go into effect in January not been nixed, the deadly Yuma outbreak and the ongoing Thanksgiving one might have been avoided. Instead, we have mountains of food rendered inedible and people getting sick and dying. We all know that the current administration finds joy in obliterating the progress of the past administration, but people are dying here. Owning the libs, one E. coli outbreak at a time. King Pyrrhus would be proud.

FDA slashed Obama rules intended to prevent all this devastating E. coli
New water testing rules were slated to go into effect last January – Trump's FDA has delayed them for at least another 4 years.

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