Review of water quality criteria for water reuse and risk-based implications for irrigated produce under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, produce safety rule

Channah M. Rock, Natalie Brassill, Jessica L. Dery, Dametreea Carr, Jean E. McLain, Kelly R. Bright, Charles P. Gerba

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Questions related to the safety of alternative water sources, such as recycled water or reclaimed water (including grey water, produced water, return flows, and recycled wastewater), for produce production have been largely un-explored at the detail warranted for protection of public health. Additionally, recent outbreaks of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in fresh produce, in which agricultural water was suspected as the source, coupled with heightened media coverage, have elevated fruit and vegetable safety into the forefront of public attention. Exacerbating these concerns, new Federal regulations released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), require testing of agricultural water quality for generic E. coli. Here, we present a review of water quality criteria – including surface water, groundwater recreational water, and water reuse – in an attempt to better understand implications of new FDA regulations on irrigated produce. In addition, a Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) was conducted to estimate risks from pathogen contamination of food crops eaten fresh under the context of FDA regulations to provide perspective on current water reuse regulations across the country. Results indicate that irrigation water containing 126 CFU/100 mL of E. coli correspond to a risk of GI illness (diarrhea) of 9 cases in 100,000,000 persons (a 0.000009% risk) for subsurface irrigation, 1.1 cases in 100,000 persons (a 0.0011% risk) for furrow irrigation, and 1.1 cases in 1000 persons (a 0.11% risk) for sprinkler irrigation of lettuce. In comparison to metrics in states that currently regulate the use of recycled water for irrigation of food crops eaten fresh, the FDA FSMA water quality metrics are less stringent and therefore the use of recycled water presents a reduced risk to consumers than the FDA regulations. These findings, while limited to a one-time exposure event of lettuce irrigated with water meeting FSMA water quality regulations, highlight the need for additional assessments to determine if the scientific-basis of the regulation is protective of public health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)616-629
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironmental Research
StatePublished - May 2019


  • E. coli
  • Food Safety Modernization Act
  • Irrigation water
  • Produce Safety Rule
  • Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment
  • Reclaimed Water
  • Recycled Water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • General Environmental Science


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