Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced yesterday that USDA has awarded $1.2 million to a collaborative research effort to identify sources and risk factors of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in fresh produce. The funds will also be used to inform growers about strategies to prevent pre-harvest contamination.

"Consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is increasing in the United States, highlighting the importance of scientific research that enhances safe growing practices," said Johanns. "This research will help to ensure that our farmers can continue to deliver safe and wholesome products from the farm to the dinner table."

There have been 16 outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 illness associated with fresh lettuce or spinach since 1995. Several of these were associated with preharvest contamination. Researchers will focus on three key questions:

* Are vertebrate populations sources of E. coli O15H7 contamination of watersheds?

* Do climate, landscape attributes and irrigation management practices correlate with an increased risk of contamination?

* Is in-field contamination of lettuce with E. coli O157:H7 associated with management production practices and environmental risk factors?

USDA's Agricultural Research Service and the University of California College of Veterinary Medicine will collaborate with the California Department of Health Services Food and Drug Laboratory to conduct the research. The results of the study will inform produce growers about specific strategies to prevent pre-harvest microbial contamination.

The grant was funded through USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service's (CSREES) National Research Initiative (NRI). The NRI is the largest peer reviewed, competitive grants program in CSREES. Its purpose is to support research, extension, and education grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture.

CSREES advances knowledge for agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities by supporting research, education, and extension programs in the Land-Grant University System and other partner organizations. For more information, visit http://www.csrees.usda.gov.