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It's been more than a decade in the making, but sometime, perhaps later this year, the Food and Drug Administration will issue what it hopes will be a final national produce water safety standard that effectively keeps manure and other sources of pathogens out of water that grows our fresh produce.  And it likely will be an utter failure.

The FDA was directed to overhaul food water safety standards as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Barack Obama back in January of 2011. The law came in the wake of a deadly bagged baby spinach outbreak in 2006. The FDA and Center for Disease Control confirmed 205 E. coli illnesses, including 104 hospitalizations and four deaths across 26 states.

It took FDA four years …. yeah four years …. to come up with a water standard as part of its 2015 Produce Safety Rule.

The FDA’s “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption,” included requirements applicable to agricultural water using a direct application method during growing activities — commonly referred to as ‘‘pre-harvest agricultural water.’’ It required growers to conduct numerous water tests each year and to use logarithmic calculations to determine water safety.

FDA rule writers came up with the brilliant idea that it was perfectly fine to use outdated science based on — wait for it — Environmental Protection Agency standards used to test recreational waters to give a thumbs up on the water for growing produce and fruits. Dumb.

Virtually every stakeholder agreed the rule was dead on arrival, but it took the FDA more than a year to acknowledge the obvious. In 2017, FDA announced it was headed back to the drawing board:

“...the feedback that the FDA has received is that some of these standards, which include numerical criteria for pre-harvest microbial water quality, may be too complex to understand, translate, and implement. These factors can be important to achieving high rates of compliance. In response to these concerns, the FDA is considering how it might simplify the water standards. FDA intends to work with stakeholders as these efforts related to the water standards proceed.”

So you would think after the 2017 PSR train wreck that FDA would fast track new water safety standards. Nope. It has taken the FDA another four years to propose a rule. Meanwhile, major outbreaks of E. coli water contamination continued:

  • 2018: Contaminated romaine lettuce resulted in 210 illnesses, including 96 hospitalizations and five deaths across 36 states.
  • 2019: Contaminated romaine lettuce resulted in 167 illnesses and 85 hospitalizations across 27 states.
  • 2020: Contaminated leafy greens resulted in 40 hospitalizations across 19 states. The sources of the contamination could not be determined because the CDC noted people “reported eating a variety of leafy greens and because different leafy greens are often grown, harvested, and processed together.” 

Let me acknowledge that creating a food water safety standard is darn right complicated. The 2015 rule went over 200 convoluted pages and politics have also played a role in the delay. The Trump Administration FDA submitted a new rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget, but before it could be posted in the Federal Register, there was a new president in town and the proposal was sent back to the Biden FDA for review.

And review it they did. FDA's latest proposal to replace the disastrous 2015 water safety standard was posted in the Federal Register this past December.

The proposal would require covered farms to conduct an annual pre-harvest water assessment to identify possible sources of food contamination and take appropriate action. Let me state the obvious.

After more than a decade of dwelling on water safety issues, the best thing FDA could come up with is allowing growers to police themselves — to self-identify potential hazards and take appropriate action?

Really? Naturally Ag industry types are happy as a pig in slop. Make fruit and vegetable farmers assess and mitigate water hazards. The proposed FDA rule ignores the truth. Agricultural water quality and food safety must be dealt with on a systematic and societal level if it is to succeed. Individual farmers shouldn't be required to police water pollution problems originating upstream, nor should they solely be responsible for bearing the cost of correcting water safety issues created by others. Full Stop.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.