Some consumers erroneously believe pesticide use would protect the public from an E. coli outbreak.
“I do not know of any pesticides, used in appropriate concentrations, that would kill E. coli O157:H7,” says Carolyn Hovde Bohach, PhD, a professor of microbiology at the University of Idaho.
So, what, exactly, is the problem?
“First of all, just for some perspective, the spinach is not to blame,” says Michael Greger, MD, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Farm Animal Welfare Division of The Humane Society of the United States. “E. coli is an intestinal bug, and plants don’t have intestines. Any diseases found on produce likely came from contamination with livestock fecal material. Our intensive confinement system of industrialized animal agriculture produces more than 1 billion tons of manure each year in the United States—the weight of 10,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. We crowd billions of animals a year into these crowded, stressful, filthy conditions. No wonder we are plagued with the increasingly common emergence of infectious foodborne disease. Factory farms are a public health menace. We shouldn’t have to cook the crap out of our food.
“There is no significant difference in fecal contamination between certified organic and conventional produce, according to a study published by University of Minnesota researchers in 2004,” Dr. Greger continues. “There is a misconception that manure is only spread on organic crops. Raw manure and even toxic sewer sludge are spread on conventional crops, whereas the use of raw manure is strictly regulated in organic production, and sewer sludge is not allowed.”
One of the key words in Dr. Greger’s comments is “certified” organic.
Growers can contaminate produce if they use improperly composted manure or manure teas as fertilizers, Dr. Bohach explains. This strain of E. coli, she says, “can live in raw manure for more than 21 months and can survive in manure through freeze thaws and through hot weather. It is very dangerous to use improperly composted manures. Likewise, it is very dangerous to eat fresh vegetables that have been irrigated with manure-contaminated water or from fields that have flooded with runoff from cattle farms.”
Dr. Bohach notes that pathogens are killed when manure is properly composted.