Elston Grubaugh, general manager of the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District in the eastern Yuma growing area describes his mood about the current romaine lettuce season as ‘guarded optimism’.
In 2018, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections linked to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma area sickened 210 people and killed five. Reported in 36 states, it was the largest outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 the United States had seen in 10 years.
In their search of the source of the problem, U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators found some water samples from an irrigation water canal in the Wellton district tested positive for the same genetic strain of E. coli that infected the people sickened or killed in the outbreak.
Ideal growing conditions
Because the Yuma growing area is blessed with a mixture of day-after-day of sunshine and Colorado River irrigation water, it is an agricultural powerhouse. In combination with Southern California, it is often referred to as the nation’s “salad bowl.” The overall area represents a $4 billion industry and provides 90 percent of the U.S. grown leafy greens distributed in the United States every year. In a typical year, about half of the acreage in the Yuma area is used for romaine lettuce.
“It came as a shock,” said Grubaugh, referring to the 2018 outbreak. “Quite a shock. We have not had a major outbreak since the district was formed in 1951.”
The spring 2018 outbreak associated with romaine lettuce from the Yuma area effectively shut down the industry as consumers and commercial buyers, including restaurants and grocery stores, stopped buying all romaine. So far so good this year in the Yuma growing area, said Grubaugh. No reports of E. coli infections have surfaced. Yet, he also points out it was about this time in 2018 when the reports of lab-confirmed E. coli infections started.
“Like everyone else, we are hoping we won’t have a repeat this year,” he told foodsafetynews.com