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Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Can Be Prevented With Aquaponics

by Graeme Hammer
Published: Last Updated on
Foodborne Illness and Aquaponics

There are over 250 identified foodborne diseases that are caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites infecting humans throughout the world. Amongst the most common, and most publicly known, is Escherichia coli (E. coli), which can be found in leafy greens, meat, and other produce. E. Coli accounts for multiple health-related illnesses each year (sometimes even leading to death) and costs the government, retailers, wholesalers, and farmers in terms of loss of profit and medical aid.

Offering proven lower risks for foodborne illnesses, a closer look at aquaponics should be taken as a reasonable and viable option to decrease the risk of all foodborne pathogens, including E. Coli.

Food-borne illness is when a minimum of 2 people become infected from the same source of contamination. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States (CDC, 2019). Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a type of bacteria that is constantly causing outbreaks of food-borne illness globally. It is present in the environment, foods, and the intestines of people and warm-blooded animals.

Throughout the United States, the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) is used by local, state, and territorial health departments to report all waterborne and foodborne disease outbreaks, infected persons or animals, and outbreaks passed by contact with environmental sources (Center for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2018).

According to NORS, from 1998-2017 there have been 46,024 cases of E. Coli outbreaks, and 1,177,980 illnesses related. 615 of these outbreaks are due to E. Coli found in food sources and have resulted in 13,730 illnesses related (CDC, 2018). There seems to be a common increase with premium harvest times for farmers with a large increase in outbreaks from food July-October. When narrowing these parameters down further, we see that E. Coli present in lettuce varieties accounts for 45 outbreaks, and 1,164 illnesses over the course of 1998-2017 (CDC, 2018).


While the toll on human lives can be drastic, food-borne illnesses can also cause damage economically. Based on the CDC, estimates of annual cases of E. Coli, though not all related to food, has an annual cost of $405 million including $370 million for premature deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million in lost productivity (Frenzen et al., 2005).

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) determined that the USA spends 478.4 million annually on E. Coli cases, not all related to food, averaging the cost per case at $6,510 (Roos, 2010). This estimate includes medical costs, time lost from work due to nonfatal illness, and the cost of premature death, while it excludes other potential costs such as travel or child care (Roos, 2010).

Besides medical-related costs, it can have a devastating effect on businesses and farmers. In the E. Coli romaine lettuce outbreak in Yuma, Arizona in 2018, there was a huge loss to growers, a decrease in sales for retailers and supply chains were drastically altered as restaurants try to find substitutes (Gray, 2018).

According to the Nielsen report on National Salad Month, “the week of April 14th (the week the news broke), romaine dollar sales fell 20%, which pushed total lettuce performance down by double digits: iceberg lettuce sales were down 19%; red leaf lettuce dollar sales fell 16%, and endive dollar sales dipped 17%.” While a loss was seen within the month the news broke, sales continued to fall in May, including a 60% total loss in romaine lettuce sales (Gray, 2018).


While each food-borne illness case is unique, common techniques can be used to prevent outbreaks. The CDC, USDA, FDA, and other state agencies suggest following these steps to prevent E. Coli illness, though not always guaranteed. In addition, knowing consumers are following these steps, and farmers/sellers are conducting proper safety measures, predictions can be made that the E. Coli outbreaks will decrease.

  1. Practice proper hygiene, especially handwashing

  2. No cross-contamination in the food processing area

  3. Wash fruits and vegetables

  4. Know your chances- people with higher chances include women, newborns, children, the elderly, etc

In addition to these simple steps, farms and companies selling products vulnerable to E. Coli outbreaks, or any type of foodborne illness can create Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Handling Practices (GHP), and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to provide safeguards for these outbreaks.


While these recommendations are needed,  an alternative to lowering the number of foodborne illnesses, specifically E. Coli, comes in the form of new technology rather than human practices. While human practices and proper facility management are a core foundation to food safety, and can always be improved, looking into alternative, lower risk growing systems like aquaponics is a viable option.

In the romaine lettuce E. Coli outbreak, it was stated by the CDC (2019a):

Hydroponically and greenhouse-grown romaine, which may be labeled as “indoor grown, from any region does not appear to be related to the current outbreak.

Soilless growing offers a viable alternative to growing crops in a low-risk environment for many microbial sources. Aquaponics, which is often greenhouse-grown, is an innovative way of growing fish and plants in rural or urban settings.

Aquaponics has been continuously proven to be a safe method to grow fish, fruits, and vegetables in any environment. For years, commercial aquaponic farms have obtained food safety certifications from Global GAP, USDA Harmonized GAP, Primus GFS, and the SWF Food Safety Program, in addition to being certified USDA organic (Aquaponic Association, 2019) and sold commercially across North America.

In an aquaponic system, the healthy microbes actually serve as biological control agents against pathogenic bacteria making their survival minimal (Fox, 2012). While aquaponics produce is not immune to all pathogenic contamination, it is one of the safest agriculture methods against pathogenic risk.

The Aquaponic Association (2019) also states that “most pathogenic contamination in our modern agriculture system stems from bird droppings, animal infestation, and agriculture ditch or contaminated water sources. In contrast, commercial aquaponic systems are “closed-loop” and usually operated in controlled environments like greenhouses. Almost all operations use filtered municipal or well water and monitor everything that enters and leaves the system.”

It’s important to note that fish are cold-blooded and they can’t host E. Coli as a pathogen, and in turn, the entrance of this pathogen into the system will be due to warm blooded animals. It is also seen that some farmers utilize water directly, unfiltered or treated, from rivers for overhead irrigation which like an aquaponic system has fish and dish feces present, among other potential contaminants, yet is not restricted like aquaponics farming (Fox, 2012).

This finding is also supported by numerous other studies testing for the presence of E. coli. One conducted study looked at 9 different systems, 5 hydroponic and 3 aquaponic systems, and while all were similar in overall design they differed in size, temperature, and potential for food safety contamination (Weller, et al., 2020).

When conducting these tests, it was found that all systems tested positive for chloroform, but only 3 systems tested positive for the presence of E. coli above the limit of detection for generic E. coli, and they were all hydroponic systems- no aquaponic systems (Weller, et al., 2020).

Elumalai, et al., 2017 compared aquaponics water with the influence of UV treatment and non UV treatment showing that there were no detectable levels of E. coli coliforms, or E. Coli O157:H7 in any of the lettuce, basil or water samples over the 118 day study period, nor was there any presence in the fish samples.

In a 2012 study, it was found that all aquaponic water samples and tissue samples tested indicated that there were very low levels of microbes of E. Coli and the values were all compliant with EPA and LGMA standards (Fox et al., 2012).

While threats still have the potential to infect aquaponics, it must be noted that between 2002-2010 the government of Alberta, Canada ran extensive food safety tests in aquaponics at the Crop Diversification Centre South (CDC South) and there was no observed pathogenic contamination during the entire 8 year period, and in the last 20 years, there have been no confirmed reports of human illness due to aquaponic fish or raw produce (Aquaponic Association, 2019).

Aquaponics offers a proven safety, much greater than that of soil agriculture when it comes to preventing outbreaks of specific pathogens, and further funding and research needs to be concentrated on these alternatives to address, specifically, E. Coli in lettuce varieties, but also other potential produce contaminations.

While proper standards amongst food safety and potential hazards can be improved through training, standard operating procedures, and legal compliances, an alternative is looking into innovative growing techniques that prove to be more resistant and safe to foodborne pathogens.

To enhance the overall adaptive capacity of these outbreaks, aquaponics should be looked at as a reasonable option, and furthermore, potential actions can offer incentives to retailers and wholesalers that buy from aquaponic farmers for specific pathogen-prone crops like lettuce.

Source: Aquaponics Association

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