Thursday, September 21, 2006

It's the %#)($#*$&! not the spinach!

Finally, the mainstream media is letting in a little peep of reason over this whole "E. Coli spinach" frenzy: The New York Times today (okay, it's the op-ed page, not the news, but you can't have everything):

Leafy Green Sewage
By NINA PLANCK
Published: September 21, 2006

FARMERS and food safety officials still have much to figure out about the recent spate of E. coli infections linked to raw spinach. So far, no particular stomachache has been traced to any particular farm irrigated by any particular river.

There is also no evidence so far that Natural Selection Foods, the huge shipper implicated in the outbreak that packages salad greens under more than two dozen brands, including Earthbound Farm, Organic and the Farmer’s Market, failed to use proper handling methods.

Indeed, this epidemic, which has infected more than 100 people and resulted in at least one death, probably has little do with the folks who grow and package your greens. The detective trail ultimately leads back to a seemingly unrelated food industry — beef and dairy cattle.

First, some basic facts about this usually harmless bacterium: E. coli is abundant in the digestive systems of healthy cattle and humans**, and if your potato salad happened to be carrying the average E. coli, the acid in your gut is usually enough to kill it.

But the villain in this outbreak, E. coli O157:H7, is far scarier, at least for humans. Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.

In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.) Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

This is good news. In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home — even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of, say, hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993.

Unfortunately, it would take more than a week to reduce the contamination of ground water, flood water and rivers — all irrigation sources on spinach farms — by the E-coli-infected manure from cattle farms.

The United States Department of Agriculture does recognize the threat from these huge lagoons of waste, and so pays 75 percent of the cost for a confinement cattle farmer to make manure pits watertight, either by lining them with concrete or building them above ground. But taxpayers are financing a policy that only treats the symptom, not the disease, and at great expense. There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle.

California’s spinach industry is now the financial victim of an outbreak it probably did not cause, and meanwhile, thousands of acres of other produce are still downstream from these lakes of E. coli-ridden cattle manure. So give the spinach growers a break, and direct your attention to the people in our agricultural community who just might be able to solve this deadly problem: the beef and dairy farmers.

Nina Planck is the author of “Real Food: What to Eat and Why.’’
MORE TIDBITS ON SLUDGE:

The Worsted Witch » Lawn of the Dead: "A recent study found dozens of medicinal, industrial, and household compounds—also known as biosolids—in the treated sewage sludge that government agencies try to palm off to the unsuspecting as “lawn-and-garden enhancements.”"

Another reason how lawns may be acutely hazardous to your health.

And get yer grassfed meat and help out your friendly local farmer: previous post.

** we take E. coli ourselves: previous post

The blog Sludgie sure has the right idea for names...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Marie,

I was just talking about this at work! I had no idea about the science behind this before reading this article, but I did think all this talk of "poisionous spinach" was somehow fishy, and that E Coli outbreaks were more understandable coming from the idustrial meat and dairy industries.

However, I had no idea that these industrial farming practices could infect neighborhood vegetable farms! Yikes! Someone has to sew these people! My doctor just told me about grass-fed several months ago, which prompted me to read "Omnivores Dilemma" and I've been a grass-fed girl ever since. Unfortunately,most people do not know about the real dangers of pushing corn on cows.

Ali

Green Fertility Marie said...

Hi Ali,

Yes, unfortunately, this puts the industrial farming types off the hook! Easier to freak out about bagged spinach--just like how we "must" bring back DDT (in the 3rd world, of course!) because of malaria--which is spreading because of GLOBAL WARMING!!!

Anyway, everyone knows how organic I am, and everyone's now saying, "See, I toldyou organic stuff is a scam!" Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Just to be safe, there should be a ban on spreading any fecal derived
material--human, cow, chicken, etc.
I don't know what to do with all the stuff, be we must be 100% safe all the time.