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OCA Statement on Nationwide Outbreak of E-Coli Poisoning from Bagged Spinach

September 18, 2006
Organic Consumers Association
by Ronnie Cummins


OCA is saddened and concerned about the nationwide outbreak of E. coli food poisoning, which, according to he press, has caused one death and serious illness among more than 100 people, apparently coming from California bagged spinach, affecting several dozen brand names, possibly both organic and non-organic. A Sept. 18 Associated Press story indicates that all contaminated lettuce detected so far has come from non-organic lettuce, though a major company involved in recalling its spinach, Natural Selection Foods, distributes both organic and non-organic brands.

According to Justin Norton from the Associated Press, "The company whose fresh spinach was linked to an E. coli outbreak that's sickened at least 109 people said its organic products had been cleared of contamination, while health officials continued working to pinpoint the bacteria source. Natural Selection Foods LLC, the country's largest grower of organic produce, said late Sunday that manufacturing codes from packages of spinach that infected patients turned over to health officials all were from non-organic spinach. Natural Selection packages both organic and conventionally grown spinach in separate areas at its San Juan Bautista plant."

Already, some agribusiness-connected websites have posted material claiming that this health emergency was caused by organic agriculture’s dependence on animal manure as fertilizer. Nothing so far has indicated that this problem is exclusively related to organic spinach nor that it has anything to do with contamination that took place in the field. The most likely explanation for this outbreak is that 90% of the nation's bagged spinach comes from one region in California, Monterey County, where a combination of excess manure, tainted with a dangerous variety of E. coli, from factory style dairy farms adjacent to spinach and lettuce farms, and above average rainfall and flooding appears to have contaminated irrigation water with E. coli-tainted animal feces, resulting in spinach plants being contaminated with E. coli. As background to his issue, the Cornucopia Institute www.Cornucopia.org has provided the following information.

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

Over the years, right-wing think tanks (the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution, etc.) have tried to discredit organic farming practices by saying that composted fertilizer containing animal manure, used as a non-chemical fertilizer on organic farms, is dangerous, when in fact there have been very few reported cases of of food poisoning caused by organic products. On the other hand the Centers for Disease Control have admitted that American consumers suffer from up to 78 million cases of food poisoning (coming from conventional food) every year.  Think tank funding for much of this anti-organic propaganda comes from Monsanto, DuPont, and other agrichemical manufacturers.

       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 are 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.