Stossel comments on E coli denial by natural foods activist

November 19, 2010 10:45 AM UTC by John Stossel ‘Natural’ Foods Activist Gets It Wrong
On my show last night, Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter debated Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Greg Conko over whether genetically-modified foods tamper with mother nature.  Wenonah says yes, Greg says no.

At one point in the debate, Wenonah Hauter insisted that the big 2006 spinach recall was of conventionally-grown spinach … NOT organic.  However, we checked.  Turns out the FDA’s own study reveals that “the ready-to-eat produce from this leased acreage was sold as conventional produce but organic growing practices were used.”
Facts like that are inconvenient for ‘natural’ foods activists.  The truth is that conventional farmers do a lot of good.  They’ve used chemicals and genetically-engineered crops to grow more food on less land.   Yet their reputation has been trashed by ‘natural,’ organic farmers and their boosters who claim, without evidence, that they are better.  They simply are not.

 
Also earlier posts here at Pundit on the spinach outbreak under scrutiny , e.g. here, which can be found via the search function.

David Tribe

Written by David Tribe

David Tribe’s research career in academia and industry has covered molecular genetics, biochemistry, microbial evolution and biotechnology. He has over 60 publications and patents. Dr. Tribe's recent activities focus on agricultural policy and food risk management. He teaches graduate programs in food science and risk management as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Melbourne.

4 comments

  1. A little birdie told me that big spinach recall was caused by the use of raw, uncomposted manure, though the local farmers like to blame the feral pigs…

  2. Yep, the problem was isolated to a farm using organic practices in the 3 year transition period so the spinach was sold as organic. Good catch by John Stossel. The document Investigation of an Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Dole Pre-Packaged Spinach from March 21, 2007, prepared by the California Department of Public Health and the FDA, stated that the bacteria could have been from two different sources.
    Long story short, the investigators found a single strain of E. coli O157:H7 had sickened consumers, and those consumers had all consumed Dole baby spinach with the same code (showing they were all from 4 fields close to each other) and the exact same strain was only found at one of those fields, and it happened to be transitioning to organic. The same strain was found in river water, cattle feces, and wild pig feces. The bacteria could have been brought by pigs on to the farm because they roamed freely but another possibility is contaminated groundwater. The cattle nearby have river access so the river is contaminated and when groundwater levels are low, the river water can fill the empty groundwater basin. That water was then used to irrigate the fields, presumably untreated.
    There was improperly composted manure from cattle and chickens found on farms all over the area, but that wasn’t named as a positive source for the E. coli O157:H7 strain that made people sick.
    Even though the report doesn’t specifically single out the river water as the source, it’s pretty clear that they think that was it. Pastured cattle that have access to rivers can damage the riverbanks pretty badly and obviously will leave manure in the river. I wonder how many cases there are where cattle-contaminated river water is near enough to a groundwater basin that it could contaminate, and where that groundwater is used for irrigation. There are a lot of benefits to pasturing cattle but this might be a major drawback.

  3. According to popular wisdom, washing organic produce prior to consumption prevents infection by E.coli. Turns out, that is false.
    E.coli can actually colonize the roots of plants, and spread to the edible portion of the plants. Which means, no amount of washing will remove the E.coli — it’s inside the plant.
    Organic farming standards require that manure be composted for a period of time, in a manner which causes the manure to achieve a certain temperature. However, testing whether this has been done is not required.
    To be sure, you can get the same result with conventional farming practices.
    The only way around this problem is fines and imprisonment for any person using manure as fertilizer for any crop intended to be, or is likely to be, consumed fresh (i.e., not cooked). This would include lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, peppers, etc.
    The option would be to use ‘cold pasteurization’ to kill any microbes before offering the crops for sale. Doing both would of course be the safest option, although organic people are against cold pasteurization — meaning that the risk of E.coli is better than moving to a safer standard.

  4. Extreme much? A far simpler solution would be to require microbial testing of compost before it’s used and/or temperature logs of the compost. There is no scientific reason to ban composted manure for raw foods as long as the manure is treated properly. That said, I’d love to see irradiation as a secondary safety method. I particularly like the side-effect of longer lasting produce due to greatly reduced bacteria and fungi.

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