V. Water as a Food Safety Program, “The Water We Eat”

2019 FSMA Annual Report

Water quality is an essential component to food safety. Food production processes use water in many ways including irrigation, cleaning, cooling, and storing. While there are limited environmental data to support the etiological connection, water contamination has been suspected in recent foodborne disease outbreaks. Acquiring data to support the connection is challenging due to the following:

  • Most contamination occurs long before field investigations are performed, which reduces the likelihood of detecting the causative agent or pathogen
  • Time delays between the time of contamination and recognition that an outbreak is occurring
  • Subsequent time needed to organize and plan environmental investigations
  • Collecting samples in diverse and dynamic environments
  • The capacity for testing is usually only available at the federal level

CDC’s Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch (WDPB) is working to address these challenges. WDPB’s core mission activities include providing outbreak response support for foodborne disease outbreaks in which water quality is a potential risk factor. These efforts include

  • Providing guidance on how to conduct environmental investigations and assessment of water resources as part of root cause analyses
  • Research on irrigation water quality, produce wash water systems, and water quality in processing facilities
  • Improving field and laboratory investigation methods
  • Building federal, state, and local capacity for environmental investigations
  • Health promotion related to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene
  • Contributing to science-based best practices and policies for agricultural water

WDPB Surveillance Activities

The U.S. burden of waterborne diseases is estimated at 7.2 million cases, which includes 600,000 emergency department visits, 120,000 hospital stays, and 7,000 deaths, and costs $3.2 billion (hospital stays and emergency department visits) annually. The top pathogens implicated in the cases are norovirus, giardiasis, and cryptosporidiosis. Ninety-four percent of the deaths and 78 percent of the costs are biofilm-associated (non-tuberculous mycobacteria infection, Legionnaire’s Disease, Pseudomonas pneumonia, and septicemia).

WDPB currently collects data about waterborne illness through the following systems:

Food-water Nexus Partnerships and Capacity Building & Looking Forward

Capacity can be improved by recognizing the overlap and synergies between programs:

  • Local environmental health programs, local health departments, and water utility emergency preparedness
  • State and federal food and water programs
    • CDC ELC funding to support combined food and water programs
  • Infectious disease and environmental health programs
    • CSTE Infectious Disease and Environmental Health committees now jointly discussing food and water priorities



The Working Group’s discussion included the following observations:

  • Efforts are underway to determine attribution estimates of foodborne disease caused by contaminated water.
  • Currently, there is little state or national capacity to conduct environmental investigations for water-related foodborne disease. No explicit field or lab training programs exist for waterborne disease; however, WDPB conducts ad hoc training in sample collection as part of outbreak responses.
  • Federal collaboration (CDC, FDA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) is key. Quality assurance and standardization of methods should be included across agencies.


Based on these questions, the Working Group highlighted the following possible responses:

What should CDC be doing to support increasing state capacity for water-related food safety investigations?

CDC could

  • Provide data (burden of waterborne disease) to explain the need for increased state capacity
  • Explore ways to include more environmental scientists/microbiologists on investigations
  • Train states to conduct water sampling/testing and environmental studies
  • Expand roles of regional labs and CoEs that have expertise in water-related food safety investigations

Should CDC obtain and synthesize more information on water contributions to foodborne disease outbreaks?

CDC could

  • Prospectively and retrospectively, systematically analyze the role of water in foodborne outbreaks

Should CDC be involved in collecting and analyzing data to understand environmental root causes and conduct risk characterizations for how water is used in food production?

CDC could

  • Provide technical support for regulatory investigations
  • Conduct and collaborate on non-regulatory, research studies
Page last reviewed: April 7, 2020