Better water testing, safer produce | 3/20/2019 | Staff
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A University of Arizona graduate student collects a water sample from an irrigation system. Credit: Natalie Brassill, University of Arizona.

Salads were recently in the news—and off America's dinner tables—when romaine lettuce was recalled nationwide. Outbreaks of intestinal illness were traced to romaine lettuce contaminated with Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria.

Bacteria - Intestines - Animals - Crops - Environment

These bacteria occur naturally in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. Because crops are grown in the natural environment, E.coli may get into the fields, contaminating produce. The results are potentially deadly for people who eat that produce.

Cooking kills E. coli, removing the danger. But lettuce and other leafy greens are generally eaten raw, so they present special safety issues. To protect the public, strict rules require producers to test their irrigation water to see if it is contaminated with E. coli or other microorganisms that can cause illness. The produce industry implements these food safety measures to keep people safe and grow a reliable, nutritious product for consumers.

Irrigation - Water - Tests - Recalls - Researchers

Are the irrigation water tests consistent enough to prevent future widespread recalls? Researchers are comparing tests to see.

In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed ten EPA-approved tests to detect generic E.coli in irrigation water. One of these methods, mTEC, is an excellent test for generic E. coli but has not been commonly used in the water testing industry. A commercially available test kit, Colilert, is much simpler to use. It is also offered by hundreds of water quality testing laboratories nationwide, compared to only a handful of laboratories that offer the mTEC assay.

Research - Scientist - Jean - E - McLain

Research scientist Jean E. McLain and colleagues at the University of Arizona felt it was important to discover how good laboratories are at using these tests, and whether test results are consistent from lab to lab. Each month, a technician collected a water sample from irrigation canals at the university's...
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