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Pundit’s Mailbag — Organics And Manure

A pointed letter responding to Jeff Hitchcock’s letter regarding organic production and the possibility that the land on which the tainted spinach was grown was, in fact, organically grown and marketed as conventional due to the three-year time passage required for the conversion of conventionally grown land to organic production:

Jeff Hitchcock’s statement, “These phonies are getting a food safety free ride!” in the Dec. 14 Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Ground, is the first instance I can remember where you’ve printed a derogatory remark. There is always the temptation to demonize people one disagrees with, but it tends to lead to a mud-slinging fight.

As you continue to point out, there are some important questions still unresolved with the spinach outbreak. Jeff’s pejorative statement fogs one of them: If in fact the spinach was growing on land in transition to organic, was there anything done or not done on that land, relative to its transitional status, that created a hazard that would not have existed, or been less, if the land were not in transition? Because that is Jeff’s implication: something about organic, or transition to organic, contributed to the contamination of the spinach.

Possibly Jeff knows some specific things that need to be brought out into the open. There is certainly a great need to develop and use manure composting practices that reduce the likelihood of human pathogen survival to insignificance (as opposed to “zero”) It is still my understanding that conventional farmers use manure or composted manure for food production when it is economically advantageous to do so. But I know for a fact that the organic certification requires specific protocols, inspects for them, and withholds certification for non-compliance, whereas I do not think there is anything comparable with conventional farming — simply an advisory, as I understand it.

This isn’t to say that existing organic composting methods are adequate. They may not be, in which case, this needs to be addressed.

It’s a jungle out there.

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts

The Pundit agrees that temperate language is very desirable in our industry debates. We all have to know how to disagree vigorously and then how to cooperate productively, and the use of pejorative words doesn’t serve that purpose.

At the same time, those weren’t the Pundit’s words, and we try to provide wide latitude for people to speak their minds, especially if they are willing to sign their names to their opinions.

On the substance, it does seem highly pertinent whether the land in question was, in fact, grown with organic methods. At this point, the investigation could not be harmed by the release of such information and so it is time for the government, Natural Selection Foods and the grower, himself, to speak to this point.

The issue of manure in agriculture is both substantive and a public relations issue.

Substantively, if we are going to use manure in agriculture, we have to change standards dramatically. It is not sufficient to prove that if everything is done perfectly, everything will be OK. We need a system that anticipates human error and sometimes malice.

An obvious thing: All composted manure ready to be used needs to be tested for generic E. coli by an independent third party. If any is found to survive, the manure is not ready for use. We should use generic E. coli as a marker for inadequate composting.

We think the whole notion of using manure in this day and age is somewhat barbaric, and the most effective consumer confidence building techniques are simple ones. So we would think the wisest course is for the industry to agree to ban the use of manure, composted or not, in commercial agriculture.

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