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Summer 2007 - Act•ionLine

by Denise Boggs | Summer 2007

Unexpected Perils: How E. Coli Became Linked to Organic Produce

Many of us enjoy visiting local farmers’ markets because they provide an opportunity to support organic farmers in our communities. Organic produce is healthful and nutritious, and consumers are demanding organic products more and more. Physicians have endorsed diets low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates such as those found in fresh fruits and vegetables to combat obesity, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer.

So what happened in the autumn of 2006 to make 200 people fall ill, and three die, from eating tainted freshly grown, organic spinach?1 Later that same month, salmonella-tainted tomatoes caused 183 people to become seriously ill in the United States and Canada.2 In December, federal health officials traced another E. coli outbreak to iceberg lettuce used in Taco Bell restaurants across the northeastern United States. That outbreak sickened more than 70 people in five states.

A federal investigation blamed E. coli as the source of contamination and investigators found the bacteria in cattle manure taken from a pasture near the spinach field operated by Mission Organics in S alinas, Ca lifornia. Robert Brackette, director of the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety, publicly announced that “once the organism is on the tissue itself, it is extremely difficult to eliminate. Even when the consumer washes it in their own home, they’re not going to get rid of the E. coli if it’s there.”3

E. coli are bacteria that grow in the intestines of cattle. Manure can contaminate the environment, including streams that flow through produce fields and are used for irrigation, pesticide application or washing.4 Spinach infected with the bacteria, then, somehow came in contact with cow manure; and indeed, organically grown produce, like most produce, is often fertilized with such manure.5

Robert Derlet, a physician at the University of C alifornia-Davis who co-authored a study published in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, found cattle grazing in national forests between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney as the leading source of E. coli contamination in Sierra streams and lakes.6 According to the research, nearly every stream and lake used by cattle contained unsafe levels of E. coli whereas water in areas without cattle almost never contained E. coli.

Salmonella also consists of bacteria found in animal waste. It tainted the tomatoes that caused illness in 2006, and has recently been found in peanut butter. Salmonella has affected hundreds of people in the United States, forcing a nationwide recall of certain brands of peanut butter manufactured as far back as October 2004.7 The Food and Drug Administration has traced the contamination back to a ConAgra plant in Georgia.8 How salmonella -- which typically comes from animal feces -- got into the processed peanut butter remains a mystery.9

Agribusiness, we see, has unintended consequences for vegetable production. Conventional farming techniques rely on animal products and chemicals, and most organic farming also relies on animal wastes and by-products, either from cows or chickens, or in the form of fish emulsion or slaughterhouse by-products. Cattle and other domesticated animals, of course, don’t choose to cause such problems; they have been abused from the beginning in the design to create a diet based on animal milk, flesh, and eggs for human consumption. Cattle production is a major stressor on virtually every ecosystem where they are managed by humans, becoming one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases in the world, a major factor in loss of biodiversity, and the leading source for water pollution in developing countries.10 There is an obvious solution to the problem: Stop growing vegetables using animal by-products.

Enter Veganic Farming

One way to eliminate the problem of produce is veganics -- or vegan organics. Veganic growers treat the soil without any animal products at all. The soil used in veganic growing must be fertile and prepared before planting, using plant material to improve soil fertility. As explained by t he Vegan Organic Network, fertility is “maintained by plant-based composts, green manures, mulches, chipped branch wood, crop rotations, and any other method that is sustainable, ecologically benign and not dependent upon animal exploitation.”11 That may also include grass cuttings, old hay, spent hops, tree leaves, comfrey, garden waste, seaweed, peas, beans, clovers and winter tares that will enrich the soil with nitrogen as well as provide organic matter. To control pests and disease, veganic growers recommend crop rotations and sustaining plants that attract beneficial insects.

Animal-free growing is the most sustainable system available, and arguably the future of organic farming. It is also another pro-active way humans can take responsibility to stop animal exploitation in all of its manifestations.

The federal government’s response to the E. coli contamination involved new rules for preventing food poisoning in produce, but companies don’t have to follow them.12 Even if the rules were mandatory, they likely wouldn’t result in meaningful change because they fail to address root problems. Surely we can and must do better. The choice is between enhancing our environment or insistence upon controlling it.

We have witnessed the results of control: major environmental and health impacts as well as animal exploitation. The world’s human population can live on a plant-based diet that would ultimately result in a better world for all sentient beings and the environment as a global whole. Let’s work together to educate people on the benefits of a vegan diet and vegan farming methods. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

Visit the Vegan Organic Network on the web at www.veganorganic.net

  • 1. Julia Prodis Sulek and Brandon Bailey, “Farm Company in Cross Hairs of Spinach Probe” - San Jose Mercury News (3 Mar. 2007).
  • 2. “ FDA Announces New Safety Guidelines for Fresh-Cut Produce” - HealthDay (12 Mar. 2007).
  • 3. John McChesney, “All Things Considered”- National Public Radio (15 Sep. 2006)
  • 4. Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, Center for Disease Control (6 Dec. 2006)
  • 5. John McChesney, “All Things Considered” (note 3 above).
  • 6. Paul Rogers, “Study Shows E. Coli Levels from Cattle” - Mercury News, (26 April 2006).
  • 7. Peanut Butter Recall Widens for Salmonella Link” - Reuters Health (12 Mar. 2007).
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. “ Tainted Cantaloupe, Baby Food Recalled” - HealthDay (17 Feb. 2007).
  • 10. Steinfeld, et al., “Livestock’s Long Shadow” - Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations ( Rome, 2006).
  • 11. The Vegan Organic Network, “Vegan Organic Growing-The Basics” (Mar. 2005).
  • 12. “ FDA Announces New Safety Guidelines for Fresh-Cut Produce,” HealthDay (12 Mar. 2007).
Denise Boggs

Act•ionLine Summer 2007

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