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Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Manure

We received a comment regarding our piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Answers. The piece was a response to another article we ran entitled Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Ground . Both pieces dealt with the revelation that the field implicated in the spinach/E. coli crisis was grown organically and was marketed as conventional produce because the product was within the three-year “transitional” stage required before product can be sold as organic.

In this piece Samantha Cabaluna, Senior Director of Communications for Natural Selections Foods, explained that “It’s important here to note that, to date, despite extensive testing, no E. coli O157:H7 has been found on the field itself; it has been found only about a half mile away on the adjacent cow pasture.”

And Samantha further explained that “…no raw or composted manure was used on this field and, on the whole, our growers are not using it in the cultivation of organic fields.”

Then we received this letter from an advocate of organic agriculture:

Regarding the 12/21 article “Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Answers” it seems to me that after pointing out that there was no E. coli 0157:H7 found in the field, that this particular field was not fertilized with manure or manure compost, that modern feedlots are major sources of human pathogens-not to mention, what became of the feral pig hypothesis? You wrap it up with the suggestion that manure or composted manure should not be used in the growing of spinach or leafy greens.

I don’t understand this thing about manure. When I was a child, my mother (God rest her soul) would apply manure to our home garden as though it were a treasure. I don’t doubt that her HACCP program could have been improved, but she knew a lot.

The person who might be considered the father of organic agriculture, Sir Albert Howard, coined the phrase “The Law of Return”. For many people, it is intuitively obvious, and rationally compelling, that waste products from animals, and — to leap right over the edge — humans, which are rich in the materials necessary for the growth of crops, get plowed back in. Otherwise we have a huge and increasingly problematic situation of dealing with wastes, and a separate, huge and increasingly problematic situation with applying synthetic fertilizers to fields.

The question of composting or treating these wastes adequately is a very important one, but it is a different question from not using them at all. Somehow the two keep getting mixed together — which to me is the critical problem.

I don’t get it. And not getting it, and yet needing some explanation, I am drawn to radical hypotheses such as that, through some design flaw in the wiring of the brain, the human race is compelled to think of itself as being fundamentally different and separate from what used to be called nature, and is trying to eliminate all indications that there could still be some connection.

Manure is good stuff! Pathogens are bad stuff! Manure does not equal pathogens!

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts

We appreciate Bob’s letter. If you click on the company link, you will see they also have an organization called Jonathan’s Organics. So Bob is involved with these issues.

He asks, logically enough, how anyone can make a leap from a letter testifying they didn’t use manure or manure compost to urging the ban on the use of manure in growing spinach or leafy greens?

It strikes us that there are three things going on.

First, we have the possibility that Samantha might be incorrect. We enjoy speaking with Samantha, think she is quite forthright and honest. But, she wasn’t there, she doesn’t audit the fields herself, she isn’t the company CEO. As we wrote about in our piece entitled Crisis Management, the problem with having “media professionals” answer questions is that it doesn’t put the issue to rest.

The letter didn’t come from a third-party auditor that reviewed those fields. It didn’t come from a grower who worked the fields.

The Pundit defended Earthbound Farm’s decision to keep Drew and Myra Goodman, the founders, out of the picture back on September 28, 2006, when a large buyer wrote us and we published the piece as Pundit Mailbag — Frustration On The Buy Side. Even then, the letter-writer was saying:

Where are Drew and Myra, the poster children for the organic movement and the faces of Earthbound Farm? They were ubiquitous, now they’re nowhere to be found. Leadership means not hiding — no matter what the lawyers say — and stepping out to face the public.

But it is a new year now. About five months after the outbreak. The spinach is from a different state now. If this goes on much longer, we will have to assume that Drew and Myra are being held incommunicado against their will. The Pundit has been thinking of filing a Missing Persons Report.

There is a lot of animosity in the Salinas industry against Earthbound right now. We received a number of quick responses looking at details of the wording Samantha used, seeking loopholes.

Many are not yet convinced that we know the whole story.

Second, whether this particular outbreak was due to manure added to the field or improper composting is not as important as the fact that it is a risk. In the lingo of the day, the use of manure, including manure compost and compost “teas,” is intrinsically a “critical control point” for consideration in a HACCP plan.

Although managing such risk is sometimes necessary, it is always better to eliminate the risk. So, if jewelry falling off of workers and getting into food is a risk, we could manage that risk by wrapping tape over rings, etc., but we are really better off just saying don’t wear jewelry to work.

The fact that “…composting or treating these wastes adequately is a very important one…” also indicates that this is a stage at which things can get messed up.

On a life-and-death matter such as food safety, on products with demonstrated risk for E-coli 0157:H7 contamination, it is not a wild leap of logic to say that we ought not to take such risks.

Third, there is a marketing element to this debate. Most Americans are very far from agricultural roots; they are not particularly comfortable with the concept of manure and certainly not with the concept of their food wallowing in it.

Part of what the produce industry needs is simple but dramatic changes that will make consumers feel better about produce. One of the problems with all these committees developing good agricultural practices is that most of it is subtle and beyond the grasp of the consuming public. Simple rules: No cows within a mile of a spinach or lettuce farm, no manure, compost, compost tea or any other form of manure on a field that is growing spinach or leafy greens.

We need complex rules for food safety, but we need some simple rules for marketing.

Our correspondent raises the basic “cycle of life” argument. But only an infinitesimal amount of the world’s manure is used in raising spinach and leafy greens.

Even if the principle is worthwhile, exempting crops where we know there is a potential problem would be smart business, an intelligent food safety step and clever marketing.

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