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(UPDATED Nov. 27) Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, has introduced a bill designed to allow regulators easier access to animal farms during investigations into the source of foodborne illness outbreaks.

The Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019, introduced on Nov. 21, would allow the Food and Drug Administration the authority to conduct microbial sampling on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) “as necessary to facilitate a foodborne illness outbreak investigation, determine the root cause of an outbreak of foodborne illness, or address other public health needs,” according to a description of the bill on congress.gov. A full text of the bill is not yet available.

Consumer groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumer Reports, welcomed the bill.
Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is chairwoman of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, plans to introduce a similar bill in the House, according to a news release from the CSPI.

“Including animal farms as part of the outbreak investigation is critical because farm animals carry germs that can contaminate not just our meat and poultry, but also our fresh fruits and vegetables,” according to the CSPI release. “Investigators must have the ability to track outbreaks back to the farm so we can understand how these pathogens move through the food system, which is ultimately the key to preventing future outbreaks.”

Gillibrand introduced the bill as the FDA was investigating another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine; on the following day, the regulatory agency advised consumers not to eat romaine lettuce grown in California.

The industry’s interest in CAFOs were heightened following a spring 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to romaine from Yuma, Ariz. In that outbreak, in which five people died, investigators found E. coli in a water canal that passed by a 100,000-head CAFO. The FDA was unable to determine how the pathogen as transferred to the lettuce.

In response, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements in California and Arizona increased buffer zones. The Arizona LGMA tripled the zone to 1,200 feet. The California LGMA did the same, but CAFOs of 80,000 or more call for a one-mile buffer zone.

The CSPI release said federal investigators were limited in their ability to test for pathogens at the Yuma-area cattle operation following the outbreak. The Packer was unable to immediately verify the details with the FDA or trade organizations that have been involved in food safety efforts.

Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said the industry knows that E. coli O157:H7 comes from ruminant animals such as cattle.

“There are many possible vectors and pathways through which crops can be contaminated,” McEntire said an e-mail. “The leafy greens industry has made great progress to disrupt those vectors, for example, by treating irrigation water under some situations. It would be really useful to determine the origin of these pathogens and take a ‘one health’ approach, looking at each opportunity to mitigate risks in a complex ecosystem, whether under the grower’s control or not.”

McEntire included a link to the Center for Disease Control and Preventions’ One Health website page.

Note on update: This article includes comments from Jennifer McEntire of the United Fresh Produce Association.

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Romaine Task force calls for action, further study of outbreak causes

California LGMA adopts changes after E. coli outbreak