Organic spinach and industry BS (29/9/2006)

Here's a couple of responses to the Averys who are in full cry over the e coli on spinach issue - big daddy Dennis is top of the latest AgBioView and Alex has been doing the rounds too, as you'll see below.

Talk radio has also been having a field day, apparently. "One voice says with one breath that he always avoids organic produce because it's all about manure, and with the next breath he says such food has no flavor. How does he know?"

The one point that tends to get missed in all this is that conventional farmers use muck too and in far greater quatities and without any rules on composting, sometimes even using sewage sludge!

So there is simply no logic in using the issue of manure to attack organic farming, unless, of course, you have some other reason for wanting to attack it.

Organic spinach and industry BS
Tom Philpott, 28 Sep 2006

Very few people are actually passionate about industrial food. Sure, people will buy rock-hard and flavorless tomatoes from the supermarket without thinking much about it, but they won't get mad because, say, there's a farmers' market down the road where someone's selling flavorful heirloom tomatoes grown without chemicals.

Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute -- funded lavishly by right-wing foundations and agribiz giants -- is a different breed altogether. Indeed, it's as though Monsanto conjured him up in a test-tube: the fellow seems to have a congenital hatred of organic food -- and a burning desire to make you hate it, too. His preferred method for achieving his goal is fear.

Take the BS he's been spreading about the recent E. coli outbreak affecting pre-washed, bagged spinach, on Gristmill and elsewhere.

In a Gristmill comment earlier today, Avery had this to say:

[H]ow do you explain the recent findings of the group at the U of Minnesota that certified organic products were more than 3 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli than conventional? (They found E. coli in 7% of certified organic produce vs. 2% of conventional, J of Food Protection 69(8):1928-1936, 2006) Hmmmm. Actual science showing greater E. coli risk from organic farming? Naw, must be anti-organic spin, right?

Wow. Should I be scared of the spinach I grow in my own field, which is fertilized with well-composted manure? Well, no. Here is the abstract of the article cited by Avery. The study tested produce from three farm types: certified organic; "semi-organic," or farms that use organic practices but aren't certified; and conventional.

The article states flatly that "none of the produce samples collected during the 2 years of this study were contaminated with Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7." The latter E. coli type, quite dangerous and virulent, is the one that infected California spinach last week.

As for other strains of E. coli, the report says that "the prevalence of E. coli contamination by produce type was not significantly different between the three farm types during these 2 years," except one year in which certified-organic produce had less E. coli than semi-organic produce.

Coliform counts were higher in organic than conventional spinach, but the researchers raise no alarms. Its abstract concludes:

These results indicate that the preharvest microbiological quality of produce from the three types of farms was very similar during these two seasons and that produce type appears to be more likely than farm type to influence E. coli contamination.

Rather than spread easily debunked misinformation, Avery might more usefully occupy himself addressing two serious charges against industrial farming raised by the E. coli scare:

As Nina Planck showed over on the New York Times op-ed page, E. coli O157:H7 thrives in the guts of corn-fed cows, not grass-fed cows, raising the serious suspicion that the outbreak stems from intensive dairy farming; and the argument made by me and others that the outbreak is a symptom of concentrating so much production of one crop in one area, organic or not.

As for the fear that Avery's remarks were supposed to inspire, it all fell flat for me except one bit: "Author of: The Truth About Organic Foods, to be released in late October 2006."

Oh, dear. Lots of debunking busywork looms.

If you insist, Alex...

...but this is tedious.

Here is Reuters on common E. coli vs. E.coli O157:H7:

"Escherichia coli is a common and usually harmless bacteria found in the guts of animals. A new, toxic strain called E.coli O157:H7 was identified in 1982. It now causes an 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year."

Okay, so the real question here is O157:H7, not E. coli per se. You write that is O157:H7 "notoriously hard to find." What's your source on that? According to the Reuters article linked above, authorities found it on a second bag of conventional spinach a few days ago. Oops, just today a third bag of tainted conventional spinach has been id'ed. All three have been branded Dole.

Alex, be honest, now: does Dole give Hudson money? Just asking -- I know gigantic Natural Selection Foods buys, processes, packs, and distributes spinach for Dole and nearly three dozen other brands. Such is the efficiency of the food system you've devoted your life to protecting.

Now, where were we? In addition to all three tainted bags being branded Dole, they're all conventional. I await news coverage of the case of tainted organic spinach you've been trumpeting.

However, I won't be surprised if it happens. Vast fields of organically grown spinach are just as susceptible to contamination by tainted streams as conventional ones. And that's what looks likely to have caused the outbreak.

Finally, to the study you cite about O157:H7 in organic vs. conventional cattle. Its abstract doesn't mention whether the organic cattle are grass-fed. If they are, the study is pertinent to the debate; if not, then it's irrelevant. Dean Foods, the largest U.S. processor of conventional and "organic" milk, gets a significant portion of its "organic" milk from confined cows eating organic corn.

But that practice undermines the organic label; it reproduces many of the ills of industrial production while drawing a price premium from misinformed consumers. By the way, have you guys hit up Dean for cash? Might be worth the trouble.

Nina Planck points us to a lit review in the Journal of Dairy Science showing that grass-fed cattle have much lower incidence of O157:H7 than grain-fed cattle. Of course, I mentioned that in my above post as well.

By the way, how's Michael Fumento doing? Still, make that Monsanto cash fall out of the sky?

by Tom Philpott at 3:58 PM on 28 Sep 2006


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