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Ensuring Clean Water for Safer Food

February 5, 2015

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Melissa Partyka retrieving a conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) profiler from a reservoir.

Because agricultural water can be a route of contamination for raw produce, UC Davis researchers at the Western Center for Food Safety (WCFS) are hunting down potentially pathogenic and nonpathogenic bacteria- including the harmful E. coli and Salmonella strains - in reservoirs and irrigation canal networks.

The FDA-funded Western Irrigation Water Project, which will cover sources of irrigation water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the desert southwest, and south-central Washington, is working to ensure safe water for agriculture through water quality surveillance and sharing of data with produce farmers and irrigation districts. For Americans sitting down to dinner, that means ready-to-eat produce like green salad and tomatoes are safer from potentially dangerous bacterial contamination that sickens millions of people each year.

Spring is a key time to sample water in reservoirs and irrigation canals because the systems are experiencing high amounts of seasonal runoff, according to UC Davis water quality researcher Ronald Bond.  As the weather warms, canal networks are also being prepared to receive irrigation water later in the season.

Principal investigator of the WCFS and director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security Rob Atwill says the research comes with added benefits for the public.  

“In addition to improving irrigation water quality and food safety, this project will improve the safety of drinking and recreational water for the public too,” said Atwill. Many California reservoirs, for example, are heavily used for recreation, such as boating and swimming, he explained.

Through this project and others, the WCFS plays a leading role in helping to address the challenges in implementing FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, the most comprehensive reform of the nation’s food safety laws in more than 70 years.