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Spinach E. coli Food Safety Crisis

Industrial Agriculture Lies at the Root of the E. coli Food Safety Crisis

By Ronnie Cummins, National Director

Organic Consumers Association, October 11, 2006


The recent tragic outbreak of E. coli 0157 in spinach that has killed three people and hospitalized over a hundred others, is being mistakenly linked to organic farming practices--specifically the use of animal manure in making fertilizer compost on organic farms. Over the years, agribusiness and biotech-funded think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others 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 only a tiny number of reported cases of food poisoning caused by organic products.


First of all, none of the recent spinach food poisoning cases have been linked to organic produce, but rather to Dole's conventional (non-organic) spinach. The processing and distribution company that shipped out these packages of Dole spinach, Natural Selection Foods, handles both organic and non-organic spinach, but so far only conventional non-organic spinach has been linked to the E. coli poisonings.


In a way, E. coli 0157 contaminated conventional spinach should come as no surprise, given that the Centers for Disease Control report that 78 million U.S. consumers suffer from food poisoning every year‹although very few, or none of these cases are coming from organic meat, dairy, and produce. This is of course one of the major reasons why millions of safety-minded and health conscious American consumers are turning away from industrial agriculture and conventional food and buying organic products. With the USDA admitting, for example, that up to 86% of conventional hamburger meat is contaminated by E. coli 0157, no wonder demand for organic beef is surging. While no conclusive source of the current E. coli outbreak in spinach has yet been determined, conventional factory farm feedlots and agricultural runoff are the likely culprits, just as they have been in 18 similar cases of conventional lettuce contamination in the same area, the Salinas Valley of California, where most of the nation's bagged spinach and lettuce are grown.


Organic farming is the safest form of food production on the planet. Unlike conventional farms, including those in the Salinas Valley area, where raw manure from factory farms and municipal sewage sludge are regularly applied to their fields with no oversight, both the USDA and independent third-party certifiers strictly regulate organic farms. Composted fertilizer on organic farms is produced in a manner that kills harmful bacteria, unlike the raw manure and sludge routinely spread on conventional farms. Unfortunately organic vegetable farms that are located near conventional factory farms run the risk of having their irrigation waters contaminated. Pathogens, like E. coli 0157 are becoming increasingly common in our food supply thanks to massive animal feedlots that generate huge quantities of tainted manure‹directly attributable to the profitable, but unhealthy, practice of feeding animals a steady diet of grains, instead of their natural food, pasture grass and forage--and the routine dosing of conventional farm animals with antibiotics.


E. coli O157 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 over thousands of years to break down grass, not high-production, refined rations.  The current E.coli spinach crisis, and past deadly problems with contaminated meat, are a direct by-product of producing cheap, unhealthy cattle on feedlots.


Organic farming is pasture based and explicitly prohibits the use of dangerous antibiotics, hormones, sewage sludge, and chemical pesticides. Organic livestock, raised on pasture, have a healthy digestive system that kills the E. coli 0157 pathogen, resulting in animal manure that is safe to use in compost, and manure that will not contaminate surface water and farm irrigation ditches with this deadly germ.


The real root of America's E. coli problem is an industrial food system that prioritizes profit above our health, the environment and rural communities. The answer to E. coli and dozens of other food borne diseases is local and organic food, produced sustainably and humanely by family farmers.

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