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E. coli Outbreak and Our Contaminated Food Supply

Numerous media outlets have blamed the recent E. coli outbreak on a specific source: Natural Selection Foods/Earthbound Farms, the leading U.S. provider of organic greens. But the press fails to examine the true root cause of the problem.At first glance, we may think it’s right to blame the grower and processor; however, an in-depth investigation into the source of the deadly strain of E. coli 0157:H7 must be top priority for the FDA, which monitors produce and seafood and is a part of the Health and Human Services Department, and the Agriculture Department, which has jurisdiction over meat and poultry.


In a Los Angeles Times article last week, focus shifted to implementing stricter FDA regulations and guidelines, as well as upping the number of inspections at food processing plants. Treating, instead of preventing, the problem seems to be the typical philosophy adopted by the Western world. Why not eliminate the problem at its source, before tainted produce hits the market? While the contamination source in the current outbreak has yet to be identified, E. coli O157:H7 infections have historically been linked to fecal matter from cattle.

Government and corporate agriculture seem to be in complete denial. What the FDA, the Department of Agriculture and corporate farming continue to overlook are the unhealthy, absolutely disgusting living conditions in which America raises its conventional cattle, chickens, pigs and any other meat that is factory-farmed. Has anyone noticed that numerous European countries and Canada will not accept our conventionally raised meat and dairy products—or that Japan placed a ban on our beef, fearing mad cow disease? The United States has a serious problem with factory-farming methods. Consider the following facts.

Certified organic food producers meet stringent regulations on the federal, state and local levels, in addition to strict federal standards for certified organic and growing processing. The use of compost and uncomposted manure is heavily regulated under certified organic standards. Other farming methods do not have to meet these standards and are unregulated.

There are more than 100 strains of E. coli, and most are beneficial. In fact, E. coli lives in the healthy human and cattle intestinal tract, among other beneficial bacteria that are necessary for proper development and good health. It is the deadly strain of E. coli 0157:H7 that’s toxic and potentially fatal.

The beneficial E. coli is found in the intestines of healthy, naturally raised, grass-fed cattle. The severely toxic form of E. coli 0157:H7 flourishes in the stomachs of factory-farmed cattle fed a diet rich in grains. The infected cows then produce infected manure that contaminates soil and groundwater, which can be carried to neighboring farms.

A 2003 Journal of Dairy Science article reveals up to 80 percent of factory-farmed dairy cattle fed a grain-based diet carried the deadly strain of E. coli. When cows were switched to a healthy grass and hay diet for five days, the infection rate declined a thousandfold. Have the FDA and Agriculture Department seen this study?

Natural Selection Foods issued the following statement last week, clearly noting that the current E. coli cases resulted from packages of conventional spinach:

Based on our work with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services, we have confirmed that no organic products of any kind, including Earthbound Farm spinach or other products, have been linked to this outbreak at this time.

At this point in the investigation, all of the manufacturing codes taken from spinach packaging retained by patients are from packages of conventional (non-organic) spinach. However, the investigation is still underway.

Another myth the media perpetuate, and which corporate agriculture is happy to promote, is that organic produce is more likely to be contaminated by E. coli 0157:H7. There is no evidence to support this claim. All food – conventional and organic – is susceptible to E. coli. University of Minnesota researchers studied the prevalence of E. coli in freshly picked produce and published their findings in 2004 in the Journal of Food Protection (Vol. 67, No. 5, 2004). They found the percentage occurrence of E. coli in certified organic produce was similar to that in conventional samples. They did, however, find a marked difference in the prevalence of E. coli in certified versus noncertified organic samples.

I am not a vegetarian; I enjoy eating meat. But once one is aware of how farmers treat their animals, the motivation to go vegetarian is much stronger. At home, I eat organic foods exclusively, including meat. When I go out to eat, my strict organic diet is tough to enforce, particularly when I choose to eat meat. Now I find myself thinking twice about ordering meat anywhere. When I look at the menu, I consider the establishment I’m in and ask myself whether the restaurant has a reputation for purchasing high-quality organic and natural foods. If I am considering a meat dish, I ask the waiter where the meat comes from and whether it’s truly all natural or organic. At that point, I make my decision.

If I am getting a true, high-quality, natural and organic dish, I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars. I am not going to be a victim of our government’s and corporate agriculture’s inadequacies and demonstrated inability to look after the health of our citizens. I also refuse to become a casualty of the side effects of pharmaceutical-industry drugs. I practice preventive medicine and carefully choose natural and organic foods that will keep my immune system strong and help fight disease. I believe spending a few extra dollars today will save me a few thousand dollars in doctor visits and pharmaceutical bills down the road. I also have a healthy respect for my food and am willing to pay a little more to ensure its quality. Perhaps if everyone was willing to pay a little more, Americans might eat a little less and our obesity epidemic would decline.

When will the Western world figure out that scientific “advancements” in genetically modified foods, growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and fumigants designed to outthink Mother Nature do more harm than good? When will the masses admit something is inherently wrong with conventional and factory-farming methods, and that we need to go back to the basics? Science, big government and large corporations forget who’s really in charge. Humans are fallible; we must pay attention to the signals Mother Nature sends us and recognize that what we’re doing is enormously wrong.

Last week, the Cornucopia Institute, a corporate watchdog for the organic farming industry, issued a press release with a series of talking points. I am publishing them here to remind us of why we must continue to support organic produce, pressuring our government and corporate agriculture to face the facts about factory-farming and its threat to human health. It’s critical that we place more stringent demands on our government’s food safety system, testing every single factory-farm for the presence of the deadly E. coli and mad cow disease. Japan tests every cow. Why can’t we do the same?

Talking Points

1. Organic Farming Protects Humans, Livestock and Environment from Dangerous, Profit-Motivated Industrial Agricultural Practices

The following information is a counter to the attempt by right-wing think tanks (the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc.) who are already trying to exploit the spinach E. coli contamination crisis to discredit organic farming practices. Think-tank funding for much of this activity comes from Monsanto, DuPont and other agrichemical manufacturers.

Unless otherwise identified, all discussion points can be attributed to The Cornucopia Institute’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst, Mark A. Kastel.

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From the Organic Authority Files

• A study by the University of Minnesota, published in the May 2004 issue of Journal of Food Protection, concluded that there was no statistical difference between contamination in vegetables grown on conventional and organic Minnesota farms, with chemical fertilizer and composted manure, respectively.

2. Risks from industrial concentration/factory-farming

• According to an FDA letter to growers (November 2005): “The FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7 for which fresh or fresh cut-lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle.”

• This is a problem that far supersedes debates about the merit of organic farming. This is a grave public health risk directly attributable to industrial-scale livestock production (factory-farming).

• This agricultural area of California, where this latest contamination crisis originated, produces the majority of the country’s spinach and many other fresh-market vegetables. It is contiguous to many CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) managing thousands of dairy cows each.

• The combination of this concentration of a mountain of manure in a relatively small geographic area, and animal feeding practices, poses tremendous health and environmental liabilities.

• E. coli and other potent pathogens are known to migrate onto neighboring farms by contamination of surface water and groundwater and/or by becoming airborne through blowing dust from feedlots or farm fields where manure has been spread.

• The FDA’s November 2005 letter went on to say, “E. coli O157-H7 was isolated from sediment in an irrigation canal bordering a ranch that had been identified in three separate outbreaks.”

• A concern is that many of the pathogens now entering the food chain due to industrial agricultural practices are becoming resistant to many antibiotics due to their widespread use in livestock production.

• “To get this many people sick, it’s got to be the water,” said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who is representing 25 victims of the outbreak. “Thirty years ago, if you bought contaminated lettuce or spinach, just your family would get sick. Now it’s a nationwide outbreak.”

• E. coli O157-H7 is a by-product of grain-based feeding to ruminants (dairy and beef cattle) in an attempt to fatten them up quicker and at a lower cost. The cow’s digestive system (and acid balance) evolved to break down grass, not high-production, refined rations. This health crisis, and past deadly problems with contaminated meat, is a direct by-product of producing cheap, unhealthy cattle.

• The majority of all animal manure, as well as municipal sewage sludge (politely referred to as biosolids—human waste), in this country is spread on conventional crops. In most cases there is little regulatory oversight.

3. Organic safeguards

• Unlike conventional production, the application of raw manure on organic crops is strictly regulated and sewage sludge is prohibited. Most organic manure is composted prior to application, a practice that greatly reduces risk and enhances environmental protection.

• “I am a compliance officer. The USDA has looked into our farmers' composting practices—even on our smallest farm—they do check if things are not documented. Details ARE looked at. I can prove this because of an USDA audit we had that covered this issue,” said Cissy Bowman, a long-time organic certification expert based in Indiana.

• It should be noted that regardless of scale, all organic food has a mandatory audit trail required, so trace-back in the event of food contamination or questions of certification is possible. This mandatory audit trail does not exist for conventional food.

4. Organic and local — an antidote for the problems of industrial farming

• Furthermore, concentrating much of the nation’s food supply in any given region, and the exponential increase in imports from developing countries, puts our nation’s food security and health at risk.

• There is no reason why spinach cannot be grown, much of the year, as is now being done by small and medium-sized producers in the Midwest and throughout much of the Northeast. The only reason that this is not being done on a larger scale is artificial economies, subsidies and compromises in quality in an unbridled effort to produce cheaper and cheaper food in this country.

• There has been exponential growth in direct-marketing by farmers at roadside stands, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and organic farms. It adds great meaning for many consumers to buy organic food directly from the families who produce it, with loving care. These farm families need to be protected from any fallout in the marketplace that might occur due to the practices of large industrial farms in California.

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