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Testing produce won't stop the deadly E. coli

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted August 27, 2007

Mr. Will Daniels oversees food safety at Earthbound Farm in Salinas, CA—the company that last year grew and packaged the bagged spinach that killed three people, including a 2-year-old boy, due to contamination with E. coli 0157 bacteria. The spinach also sickened at least 200 other people, many with serious kidney failure.

"We thought we were the best, but clearly that wasn't enough," says Daniels.

After the tragedy, Earthbound Farms hired a food safety microbiologist, who immediately told his new bosses that they were kidding themselves if they thought it wouldn't happen again.

"Another bullet is coming your way," he warned. "Will the processing eliminate the [bacterial] hazard? The answer for this industry is no. You can reduce; you cannot eliminate."

Earthbound has nevertheless put in place the most aggressive testing and safety program in the industry. All its greens are now tested for pathogens twice—on arrival from the field and again when the packaged products come off the processing lines. The testing has confirmed the fears: some of the produce is still contaminated.

"We're not going to rest until we explore every possible safety improvement," says Daniels.

The problem is that neither farmers nor the federal government are doing all they could to stop the deadly E. coli from poisoning customers. Electronic irradiation could destroy 99.999 percent of the dangerous bacteria, effectively eliminating the E. coli danger. Irradiation simultaneously kills the spoilage bacteria, keeping the produce fresher longer.

Irradiation is now being used widely to protect hamburger from the E. coli dangers, with a major irradiation plant in Sioux City, Iowa. Irradiation is even more important for lettuce and spinach, because we most often eat them raw. But the Food and Drug Administration has been sitting on a petition to permit irradiation of leafy greens for eight years. They're afraid if they give approval, the food-scare activists will howl with rage. Never mind the kid who died and a hundred people with kidney failure. We want our food to be politically correct even more than we want it safe.

Nor are organic farmers protecting their customers. The Earthbound field on which the contaminated spinach was grown was managed organically, in transition to organic certification, under lease to a company co-owned by Earthbound. Composted manure may have been used to provide the Earthbound crops with nitrogen. Composting can kill bacteria, but its safety can't be guaranteed.

On the other hand, E. coli bacteria with the same signature were found in a nearby free range cattle herd, and wild pigs were moving through the area. We can't defend open fields from bacteria that are everywhere—but, with irradiation, we could kill the bacteria that actually get into our food.

The mega-bucks food scare industry, of course, is against irradiation. They demand "more natural" food production and less processing. Crumbling under pressure, the major grocery store Safeway has just announced it will no longer market meat packaged with carbon monoxide gas even though it keeps meat fresher, longer, in the consumer's refrigerator, thereby providing an extra safety margin. In other words, the food industry is being forced by food-fear rhetoric to abandon technologies that benefit consumers.

How many people will have to die? When will we realize—again—that Mother Nature is a harsh mistress, unleashing deadly viruses and proliferating bacteria along with her sunlight and rain. Survival of the fittest is her motto.

Humans used to consider that our ability to think was part of our survival equipment. Now it seems we rely on dumb luck. Poor little child. Poor grieving parents. Poor FDA? ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.


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