[Vision2020] connections, and how to break them

Mark Solomon msolomon at moscow.com
Thu Sep 21 07:39:16 PDT 2006

The New York Times

September 21, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
Leafy Green Sewage

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, O 
Organic and the Farmer's Market, failed to use proper handling 

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 

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 

Nina Planck is the author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why.''
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.fsr.com/pipermail/vision2020/attachments/20060921/38f05d1f/attachment.htm 

More information about the Vision2020 mailing list