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Could There Be Common Ground Between The Spinach Crisis And The Cantaloupe Catastrophe?
Might Both Have Been Sourced From Transitional Acreage?

After a weekend of reflection, we have come to think we may have been a little hasty in dismissing the concern raised by Eric Schwartz, President and Chief Executive Officer at Patterson Vegetable Company, in his recent letter to the Pundit that we included in our piece titled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Are Consumers Entitled To Know If Organic Or Transitional Product Is Sold As Conventional?

Eric had raised an issue that has confounded scientists and that is this: One of the greatest challenges in assessing food-safety matters is quantitating risks. Risk is such a personal issue that even among well informed scientists, developing a quantitative consensus is quite improbable. When expanding the process to include the wide diversity of perspectives from the general population, the probability of coming to a consensus is simply impossible.

Which brings us to realize something: Despite intense media attention on the Jensen Farms cantaloupe outbreak, it is somewhat odd that no one has reported anything regarding the organic/transitional or conventional status of the crop. Surely, despite the FDA’s exhaustive report on the packing house, it is legitimate to want to know what type of farming operation supplied Jensen Farms. Was it conventional, transitional or organic?

We’ve tried to get Ryan Jensen to respond to us, without success.

We know the Weston A. Price Foundation claims that “Jensen Farms, producer of the cantaloupes, does not use pesticides,” and the FDA says the cantaloupes are labeled “Pesticide Free”.

At one point, Amy Philpott, known to the industry when she was Vice President of Marketing and Industry Relations at United Fresh Produce Association and now Senior Communications Director at Watson/Mulhern LLC was acting as a spokesperson for Jensen Farms. When news reports hit that a field directly across from a Jensen Farms field had been fertilized with treated human excrement, Amy explained that this didn’t apply to Jensen Farms:

“Jensen Farms uses two types of commercial-grade fertilizer: heat-treated or pasteurized organic fertilizer and phosphorus-based nonorganic fertilizer. Both are approved for use on cantaloupe, among many other crops,” said spokeswoman Amy Philpott.

We should also note that we have heard from other farmers in the area who tell us that the operation was following organic growing practices. So we don’t have a definitive answer, but there seem to be quite substantial indications that Jensen Farms was sourcing product from a transitional operation. If so, this would indeed be a curious coincidence in that it would create an exceptional commonality between the spinach crisis and the cantaloupe crisis in that, in both cases, the product was sourced from transitional ground. 

Of course, and here is the rub, it may not be a coincidence at all. There might be causal links in both situations.

The failure to address this issue in the FDA report may be a case of political correctness run amuck. After all, no matter what the flaws of the packing operation, it still leaves open the question of the source of the pathogen. That typically is product from the field.

There are long term issues here for public health advocates to address and for consumer behavior: When a farm is prohibited — due to organic requirements — from using a mineral fertilizer, as the soils become more and more depleted of nitrogen, the farmer will look for alternatives, including manure.

Is it really unreasonable for an individual to believe that the additional risk of consuming product from a farmer under such pressure is unacceptable?  Are we really saying that the use of manures carries “no additional microbial” risk?  We don’t have good evidence that this dynamic increases risk. It might, however, be that  the rarity of the event causes it to be difficult to replicate in experiments.

Perhaps Eric Schwartz is onto something more substantive than we gave him credit for. The fresh produce industry is responding to a societal pressure to produce organic products that require some practices that may, despite small probabilities — these are all Black Swan events — introduce a possible hazard. 

If reasonable people can agree that a rigid approach to addressing nitrogen deficiencies does add a low probability hazard, and that a less rigid approach would reduce the low probability event even further, how should trade buyers react? How should consumers react, and should they have a right to this information?

One wonders if this point about the source of the cantaloupes was included in the audit report. If it was — and so buyers were aware that a more rigid approach was being practiced — what should have been the response from a trade buyer? Should he consider it to have carried additional risk because it was grown under conditions that restricted the farmer’s options?

Perhaps the idea that consumers should know that the product they are purchasing was grown under constraints, constraints that might have led to the introduction of a hazard, is an idea worth considering.

In other words the idea that organic and transitional product should not be able to be sold as conventional without special labeling may well be an idea whose time has come.

Society has participated in defining the process with organic and transitional, but as it stands now, it is the industry or, more specifically, the individual suppliers, distributors and retailers — as well as the consumer who eats the product of course — that carries all of the risks.  

We need an honest debate regarding this politically incorrect issue.    

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