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More Information on the Contamination of California Organic Lettuce

From the newsletter of the Wedge Community Co-op (Minneapolis, MN) June/July 2003 http://www.wedge.coop/newsletter/bin/jun_jul03/page_12.html
07/09/2003

Ask Professor Produce

Question: Can greens (salad and other leafies) be purchased from places other than California? I am concerned about reports saying that Colorado River water is putting toxins (perchlorate) into the greens. ‹ John, Nordeast

Answer: So is the Professor, John. And so should anyone who eats a lot of California lettuces (i.e., most of the U.S).

The Environmental Working Group conducted a study earlier in 2003 that, while small and far from conclusive, contains some shocking evidence that begs further research: ³Eating lettuce or other vegetables grown in fields irrigated by the Colorado River may expose consumers to a larger dose of toxic rocket fuel than is considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.² The report claims that four of the heads of lettuce contained contamination levels that could cause thyroid disruption. Yep, even in organic lettuce. In fact, organic produce in the small sampling had the highest levels of perchlorate, the explosive, key ingredient of rocket and missile fuel.

The EWG goes on to say, ³Sworn depositions and other courtroom documents show that the giant aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin­a major user of perchlorate­ knew as early as 1997 that vegetables stored high concentrations of the chemical, but said nothing to the EPA or state health officials. Since most perchlorate-related work by defense contractors is done for the U.S. military, the Department of Defense may also have known, but said nothing to warn other agencies, consumers­or farmers whose crops, through no fault of their own, may be tainted by contaminated irrigation water.²

Sorry to go all Bill Moyers on ya here, Wedge members, but it gets worse. The Wall Street Journal¹s Peter Waldman reported in late April that the Bush Administration issued a gag order preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from discussing the perchlorate issue, while simultaneously proposing a bill in Congress, citing military readiness, that would spare the defense industry from perchlorate contamination clean-up. A bit premature, since the EPA is only now determining at what levels perchlorate is truly dangerous.

How big is this issue? If the federal government doesn¹t pay for a costly seven-state-wide perchlorate study of the Colorado River Basin, folks like John from Nordeast have every right to doubt the integrity of veggies grown in that vast region­in California, that means the cornucopia of the Imperial Valley, which provides America with 90% of its lettuce in the winter. And for organic buyers like Rick Christiansen at Co-op Partners Warehouse, it means he¹s worried about the integrity of organic produce from that region. ³I have to trust the paperwork,² he says, ³but I have to ask questions, too.²

This issue is still so new that organic certifiers are scrambling to find the right tools to deal with perchlorate contamination. Erin Mirrett, of prominent organic certifier Oregon Tilth, told me that her group is working with labs on ³defining what tests need to be conducted on organic produce to verify they are not contaminated.² Mirrett said they are also considering spot inspections of farms once Oregon Tilth determines which tests to employ.

Now then. Let¹s pull back from the fearful tone I¹ve struck for half a sec. Yes, the EWG study¹s implications are staggering. But it¹s important to remember that the study looked at a pretty meager sampling of products (just 22 heads of lettuce), and only four of those had dangerous levels­meaning more study is needed to pinpoint the source of contamination. The Colorado River Basin is immense, so intelligent critics of the EWG report have a solid argument when they say that four heads of tainted lettuce are hardly enough to cause a nationwide panic over greens grown near the long and winding Colorado. But both sides agree: We need more information. As a Los Angeles Times editorial put it, ³The Bush administration should, as Sen. Barbara Boxer D-CA proposed Monday [April 29, 2003], ask the Food and Drug Administration to begin an Œimmediate investigation¹ to determine the extent of the lettuce contamination problem.²

Meanwhile, this June, your salad bowls will be brimming with organic leafies from Avalanche and Harmony Valley (the Wedge had organic spinach on the shelf back in early May). Both of these farms are fed from the perchlorate-free waters of the Kickapoo River in Wisconsin, and by late June, the Minnesota crops should be in. We won¹t see Imperial Valley lettuces until November, but at that point, southern California so thoroughly dominates the domestic market that the rest of America won¹t have much choice but to purchase their lettuces.

Stay tuned. We¹ll have more on this topic in future issues, I¹m sure.

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