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Pundit Mailbag: Causes Of E. coli

Received a note from Jim Wells who runs Oregon Wild Edibles, which focuses on harvesting fungi and other wild edibles. He is responding to the piece the Pundit wrote about the implications for organic produce of the spinach/E. coli situation. You can read that piece here.

Have you commented on the animal run-off angle, presented, for instance, by the New York Times’ Sept 21 article “Leafy Green Sewage”? If not, why did you focus on the “manure in compost” angle instead? Tom Philpott, in the Sept 21 issue of Grist magazine (“Latest E. coli outbreak should prompt rethink of industrial agriculture”) argues that it is a red herring — that “the organic question distracts from the real story behind the outbreak”

If I was a betting man, I would give odds on that. Philpott suggests the real story is “consolidation of production”. For me, that is not a conclusion; it is an assumption, albeit an impractical one to spend much effort on, due to the widespread fixation on “more is better”. A more likely productive vector for town-crier analysts, such as yourself (that is not derogatory, all towns sorely need them), to beat the drum about, may be the “agricultural run-off” vector.

We appreciate the letter and took the liberty of inserting links to the articles referenced in it so everyone so inclined can read the pieces referenced by Mr. Wells.

As far as Mr. Philpott’s article goes, I think some of it is unsupported, as in his claims that small production is more flavorful than production from large farms and the rest of his article is true because it is a truism. Yes, of course, large-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness can only take place if you have large-scale food production and distribution. So if what bothers you about a foodborne illness outbreak is that it is in 20-plus states, yes you can pass a law limiting sales to product produced within a single state and then you won’t have multi-state foodborne illness outbreaks.

But who cares about that? What most people would care about is the total number of people who die or get seriously ill from foodborne illness, not the scope of the outbreaks. Most people would not feel better if 50 people die in 50 separate outbreaks as opposed to 25 people dying in one giant outbreak.

The argument that local production will be safer is certainly arguable, and the Pundit would argue it is almost certainly false. Safe production requires food safety expertise, expensive equipment, HACCP plans, trace-back paperwork — all things far more likely to be affordable in a large centralized production facility than small regional outlets.

The article entitled “Leafy Green Sewage”, written by Nina Planck, falls firmly into that category that I refer to as “Interesting, if True”. She has a theory that feeding cattle grain causes the growth of E. coli 0157:H7 in their intestines and that the current E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak is caused by “… the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.”

This could be true, but the FDA hasn’t endorsed her theory. And other people have other theories:

“Dr. Robert Tauxe — a medical epidemiologist and the deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — says it’s likely that the outbreak has spread through the droppings of deer that dance unchecked across California spinach fields.”

You can read his take here.

As far as why we deal with one thing rather than another, it is always a judgment call. Space and time are always limited, and the Pundit has to make some choices. In general, we try to focus on things that the industry can deal with. So, for example, the produce industry has no power and only limited influence in the sphere of changing laws regarding what cattle can be fed.

On the other hand, any buyer or seller in the produce industry can decide to stop using manure tomorrow. And if we want to change the National Organic Standards, the produce industry has a lot of influence in that regard when it comes to changes relevant to fresh produce.

Besides, as the Pundit wrote here, this is a marketing issue as well as a food safety issue. Since we don’t know the cause of this E. coli outbreak, all we can do is look to eliminate vulnerabilities in the system. If you were running a HACCP analysis, one would certainly identify improper composting as a hazard. The easiest way to control the hazard is to eliminate the use of manure. In one fell swoop, we could convince consumers that structural change was taking place that will make produce safer.

That one day we may learn more about other factors is not only possible but highly likely. But, until then, we can both eliminate a risk and help rebuild a market. Sounds like something worth doing.

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