Ease up on produce farmers

by Caroline Brown

In today’s New York Times. Nina Planck writes a good article about the E.coli outbreak due to eating raw spinach from California. She makes some excellent points, worth discussing here.

Of course, everyone wonders how a bacteria associated with the fecal matter of cows contaminated spinach farms. Speculation has grown that contaminated water is the cause, and the experts are debating whether the water came from a contaminated irrigation source or the flooding of a contaminated river.

OK, fair enough. However, Planck wonders where the bacteria came from in the first place, noting that humans’ stomach acid is normally strong enough to kill E. coli invaders from say, a potato salad gone terribly wrong.

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.

Then Planck drops her bomb:

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. (Emphasis mine.)

You know where I’m going with this now, right?

Planck says that studies have shown that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry this particular strain of E. coli, and for the most part, the food safety measure do their job of keeping fecal matter out of our food supply. The same study provided a solution:

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.

However, that doesn’t stop the bacteria from entering groundwater via cattle feedlots. It would take a lot more than a week to reduce contamination of the water supply.

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. (Emphasis mine.)

I bet you think that I’m going to launch into a foamy diatribe against corporate farmers, don’t you?! Nope, I’m not going to say anything at all about their cruel, inhumane, and frankly, DISGUSTING cattle raising practices. (Have any of you ever driven through California’s Salinas Valley? The stench is unbearable.)

Nope, not goin’ there. No foam here at all. I’m only going to say that industrial cattle farms need to change their feeding habits. It’s very simple. Industrial “farmers” should stop feeding grain to cattle and feed them a more natural diet.

Wanna make a guess why they won’t? I’ll give you a hint: the answer begins with $.

Image courtesy of the USDA Regional IMP Centers Information System.

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8 Responses to “Ease up on produce farmers”

  1. “Food for thought” indeed C. Another strong case for going vegan, at least for me. We are getting there but tough to give up all dairy products, especially with limited subs. avail. where we are now. Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking article, good post.

    BFN, G

  2. G., I have some info about small organic dairy farms vs. large ones that say they are organic but are really corporate feedlots. It rates all the dairies. I will send to you, not sure if applicable in Canada but you might find it useful.

  3. Hi Caroline, thank you for the Information and I share your conclusion. Some days ago I had a discussion with another German blogger, for him it was clear: The organic farmers are to blame. I’m sure there will start a new campaign against organic farming.

    Off topic: Thanks for your articles about the New England gardens.

  4. It seems that in every area, more and more things are forced toward the fabricated, manufactured, and unnatural. And more and more, we see how this destroys ecosystems and the balances of continuation and survival. Unhealthy planet = unhealthy people. One wonders how long it will be before the whole thing collapses…..

  5. Balou, my friend! Hope you’re doing well and thanks for commenting. Yes, the corporate cattle barons are holding their breath, hoping that the media continues to blame produce farmers and that they will remain blameless for the controversy. In the case of US media, they are probably correct!

    Michelle, I have to agree with you. I have a friend who says that “when the Earth has had enough, she will flick us off like so many fleas.” I don’t understand why we haven’t imploded already.

  6. While it becomes obvious then the source of the problem, we all (including the produce growers!) need to get as far back to “good composting measures! There is nothing healthier for our food growing then well aged, and completely composted bio-materials. If properly done, composted materials offer far less “risks” then any of the raw byproducts of feed lot farming!
    Animal waste can be of a great benefit to farming and gardening if handled in a safe and responsible way. Direct application is a problem to the environment no matter how it is done when crops are present.
    I was happy to find your report on the optional feed practices within a feedlot setting that would also allow the meat produces a way to address the real problem!
    Another example in life as to how we all need to stop yelling blame and address the problems we encounter, together and from as many sides as possible!

    I support “Grow Your Own and Be Responsible” as the way to keep smiling in the fast pace of our world today!
    Make mine green, please!
    FliTrap

  7. Amen FliTrap. Lots of people have the impression that organic gardening using compost or manure could cause e-coli to be on the crops but not the case when managed properly & responsibly.

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