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A bad time for organic believers

By Dennis T. Avery and Alex A. Avery
web posted October 9, 2006

It's a bad moment for believers in the mystical wonders of organic and natural foods. Deadly E. coli bacteria, lurking in spinach from one of the biggest organic farms in America, just killed one woman and hospitalized at least 29 other people with kidney failure. In all, the contaminated spinach sickened nearly 200, in at least 23 states and Canada.

Meanwhile, several California kids are on kidney dialysis with permanent organ damage from the same virulent strain of E. coli O157: H7 after consuming raw, un-pasteurized milk or colostrum from the Organic Pastures Dairy of Fresno.

Tragically, the victims were all seeking greater food safety and the promised health benefits of vegetables and milk produced the "old-fashioned way."

Earthbound Farms, which grew the contaminated spinach, is being sued by a shocked family of organic believers in Ohio. Three family members were sickened, and one daughter has permanent kidney damage.

Earthbound Farms advertises that it sells "Food for Life," and says "It's just plain healthy to include lots of organic vegetables in your diet." That certainly rings hollow today.

Now the farm's parent company has recalled huge batches of spinach sold all over the country under a variety of labels. "We will do whatever is necessary to help protect the health and safety of the consumers," said an Earthbound spokesperson.

Does that mean Earthbound will stop fertilizing its leafy vegetables with cow manure? Most conventional farmers fertilize their food crops with "chemical" fertilizer, and put their livestock manure on feed crops like corn. Organic farmers reject chemical fertilizer. Instead, they compost raw cattle manure for some weeks, hoping that will kill any dangerous organisms that could contaminate the food. Sometimes it doesn't.

In the old days, when organic produce came from a few little farms, an occasional sick customer was no big deal. Often, the victim refused to believe organic food could cause the illness. But so many people now believe the organic hype that organic farms have gotten big and corporate and the manure-related consumer epidemics make national news.

Organic Pastures ironically boasts that raw dairy foods are an outstanding source of nutrients and "beneficial bacteria." Unfortunately, it's also a source of dangerous bacteria.

The organic dairy claims "Raw milk strengthens the immune system." And that organic raw milk has "many enzyme-based pathogen-killing systems." Apparently not enough of them.

"It has been theorized," says the organic company, "that the combination of grass feeding, no antibiotics used, no hormones, and low levels of grain used in the diet cause a change in the cow's immune system and rumen. This change in physiology inhibits pathogen development in the [organic] milk."

That isn't even a theory. It's a marketing lie, designed to wring a higher price from the consumer for a product that's condemned by health authorities because of its inherent dangers. The FDA says drinking raw milk is playing Russian roulette with your health. Such milk-borne diseases as tuberculosis and undulant fever were epidemic in the days before pasteurized milk. Now the E. coli pathogens revealed the lie again.

The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are trying to blame "factory livestock farms" for the O157 in the cattle manure. But a recent Swiss study found organic cows have as much O157 as other cows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's found the deadly O157 in every cattle herd it's tested.

Our objective should be to get the manure away from our food crops. Organic and natural aren't safer, or more nutritious: Just more expensive, and far more dangerous. ESR

Dennis Avery is Director of Hudson's Center for Global Food Issues, where Alex Avery is director of research and education. Alex's new book, The Truth About Organic Foods, is due in October from Henderson Communications. Readers may write them at Center for Global Food Issues, PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421


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