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Deadly organic spinach

By Alex and Dennis Avery
web posted March 19, 2007

Organic food activists are being served a heaping platter of organic crow now that we finally learn last fall's outbreak of deadly E. coli O157:H7 was caused by organically grown spinach.

On February 27th, California food regulators admitted under direct questioning at a state senate hearing that the tainted spinach that ultimately killed 3 and sickened over 200 was traced to a 50-acre organic field – contrary to the repeated denials of organic activists.

They're still denying it. The spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association told us the contaminated spinach "does not meet the legal definition of organic" because the farm was "in transition" – the mandatory 3-year period when the product must be sold as conventional. During the phase-in, however, the farmer must use only "organic" fertilizers, such as bacteria-laden manure and manure compost.

When the organic revelation surfaced, we emailed our long-time ideological adversary Chuck Benbrook, who runs the industry-funded Organic Center for Education and Promotion. Chuck was the former head of the National Academy of Science's Board on Agriculture until he was dismissed for pushing his organic agenda too far into Academy reports.

Chuck insisted that "there is zero evidence that anything [the organic farmer] did opened the door to the pathogens; no compost was applied on the field." But he wouldn't say what, if any, organic fertilizer was applied to the spinach field.

Mum's the Word

From the beginning, we have repeatedly asked the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies if any of the suspected farms were organic or "transitional organic," and whether they used animal manure (composted or not) as a fertilizer on the suspected spinach crop. We've never received an answer to this simple, basic question.

Instead, the FDA and California Department of Health Services have settled on the theory that the E. coli came from angus beef cattle raised on nearby pastures. (See the ranches website, http://www.paicinesranch.com/) Investigators found matching E. coli in the feces of the ranch's cattle and also in a feral pig killed on the ranch. The officials have openly speculated that feral pigs could have transferred the E. coli from the cattle pastures to the spinach field, noting holes in and under the fences on the ranch.

Many organic believers have seized on this theory to continue their ceaseless bashing of "industrial cattle feedlots." In this case, however, they are only shooting themselves. The ranch in question is strictly a grass-only, pasture-based operation -- the kind they themselves advocate as the "safe alternative" to so-called "factory farms." (See: http://www.paicinesranch.com/grass-fed%20beef.htm)

The ranch's website even refers visitors to a website that claims people who eat grass-fed beef have "a much lower risk of becoming infected with the [E. coli bacteria]" and that E. coli O157:H7 from grass-fed cattle are far less likely "to survive the natural acidity of our digestive tract."

Maybe, maybe not – the research is contradictory and ongoing. But in this case the claims ring hollow to the hundreds of spinach victims and their families.

Moreover, other research indicates that organic methods are at best no safer than non-organic methods. At worst, they're significantly less safe. Research from the University of Minnesota published in 2004 found organic lettuce was the most contaminated they tested (one in four heads carried generic E. coli, an indicator of bacterial contamination). Overall, the organic produce was six times more likely to harbor E. coli than produce from conventional farms. The scientists also found potentially deadly Salmonella on organic lettuce and green peppers, but not in any conventional foods tested. The sample sizes were too small to say whether this difference was statistically significant.

The contamination echoes the findings of Consumer Reports, who reported in January that organic chicken harbors 300% more Salmonella than cheaper, non-organic brands they tested. Ditto similar studies from Denmark and Britain. Last week, the British environment agency reported that they could find no evidence that organic foods are any better for the environment, either, despite the shrill insistence of organic activist groups.

We wish we could say that the news the tainted spinach was organic surprised us, but given the multiple research findings indicating greater bacterial risk, we suspected it all along. ESR

Alex Avery is director of research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues and author of The Truth About Organic Foods. Dennis Avery is a senior fellow at Hudson. Readers may contact them at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.


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