New efforts to keep consumer crops safe

Published: Jan. 31, 2019 at 2:19 PM EST
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John Boltes' fields of romaine lettuce are ready for harvest. During the winter, farmers in Yuma, Arizona, grow more than 80 percent of all leafy greens consumed in North America.

"And we're working to make sure that every single serving is safe," Boltes said.

But many consumers have questioned the safety of lettuce after two E. coli outbreaks last year killed five people and sickened more than 200 nationwide, leading stores to pull all romaine from their shelves.

Boltes says farmers are still feeling the effects of that.

"Yeah, and that could go on for some time," he said.

Now, scientists are looking for new ways to stop the spread of foodborne illness.

"We're out in a natural environment and always fighting against those possible incursions," said Paul Brierley of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture at the University of Arizona.

Brierley says while crops are tested for contaminants now, results may not be available until the product is already on store shelves. Brierley and other researchers are working to change that. They want to eventually develop scanners that could be used on harvesters or in the field. The technology would immediately spot the smallest contamination and allow workers to pull the produce before it ever reaches the food supply.

"You'd know right away if there was something like E. coli or salmonella or something like that," Brierley said.

Scientists are also working with farmers to engineer a new breed of crops that would be resistant to disease and drought.

"The same lettuce that I cut here out of this field is the same I'm going to take home and feed to my family," Boltes said.

That's why Boltes supports any new ideas that can prevent future outbreaks.