FDA names first source in ongoing investigation of romaine lettuce outbreak

A Santa Maria, California farm—run by a county supervisor—is the first to be identified as a source of E. coli contamination.

Just before Thanksgiving this year, the American public was warned to steer clear of all romaine lettuce due to an ongoing, multi-state outbreak of E.coli O157:H7, a particularly deadly strain of the bacteria that had sickened 32 people and prompted kidney failure in at least one person. In the weeks since, government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have narrowed down the source of the outbreak, and given the okay to make salads again—provided, of course, that shoppers check where the lettuce is coming from.

Because FDA, which regulates 70 percent of the country’s food supply, was only recently granted the power to force mandatory food recalls, companies have, in the past, voluntarily pulled their products from stores when contamination was suspected. This romaine outbreak, however, led to a landmark agreement with lettuce producers to label their products with harvest dates and locations, so in the event of another outbreak of this scale, retailers and especially clued-in eaters who love breaking food news—trust me, you’re a rare breed—will know exactly which lettuces to avoid.

Now, there’s a new development in the ongoing investigation. The FDA on Thursday publicly identified one California farm as one of eight linked to contaminated lettuce: Adam Brothers Family Farms in Santa Maria, where sediment from a local irrigation reservoir tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7. The farm—which FDA stresses is not the sole source of the outbreak—has voluntarily agreed to recall its lettuces and cauliflowers. Because the traceback work is is still ongoing, FDA recommends avoiding romaine lettuce harvested in Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Barbara Counties.

Adam Brothers is owned and operated by Peter Adam, a Santa Barbara County Supervisor representing the fourth district, and his brothers Dominic, Kieran, and Richard, according to The Santa Barbara Independent. In a 2016 profile of Peter, a fifth-generation family farmer, the paper describes his farm, located in a floodplain, as a sprawling, 3,400-acre operation where he raises broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and cattle, employing 400 workers.

Adam, who the Independent calls the county’s “leading antigovernment protestor,” rose to prominence over 15 years ago, during a long, public fight with county planners, who designated part of his farm as an environmentally sensitive wetland, and thus, protected from any agricultural activity. He sued to overturn a stop-work order and was awarded nearly $5 million for lost profits, $892,500 for the depreciated land value, and an additional $130,000 in punitive damages.

Adam also faced a minimum three-year prison sentence for a federal Clean Water Act violation, according to the Independent, which was the result of an investigation launched by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In that case, Adam settled for $1 million. “In the end, Adam lost millions, but the wetland designation was reversed,” the paper wrote. “He could farm the land.”

Representatives from FDA and CDC told The New Food Economy that it’s “too soon to speculate” on how the bacteria, which lives naturally in the intestinal tracts of healthy animals like cows, goats, sheep and deer, could have ended up in the reservoir. Adams Brothers said in a statement that filtered, treated water from the reservoir, which “may have come in contact” with harvested produce, has tested negative for E.coli. It’s worth noting that lettuce growers aren’t required to test their irrigation waters for pathogens.

Waterway protection rules, such as the recently-revised Waters of the United States (WOTUS), are designed specifically to protect rivers, streams, and tributaries from use by farms. Adam, the county supervisor, has been public in his antipathy for rules that govern water and land use for farming. “We level the earth here. We irrigate. We extract water and spread it over thousands of acres to grow crops,” he told the Independent. “We’ve been drilling holes up here since Jesus was a lieutenant.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.