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Pundit’s Mailbag — Oversights In Food Safety

We’ve received a most important letter:

As a grower, shipper and processor of conventional and organic leafy green vegetables, I would first like to commend you for bringing some common sense to the E. coli issue of late. But, in all the ideas I see being proposed by all the different industry organizations and government bureaus, there seems to be some amazingly glaring oversights.

Foremost, cow manure: Most E. coli comes from cow manure. In my mind this makes it a bio-hazard, and as such should be removed from the fresh vegetable input approved list and handled accordingly. Guidelines should include:

  1. Allow no use of raw manure in any fresh produce field, anywhere, from this day forward.

  2. No longer allow cow manure to be used in compost. There are many alternatives to cow manure. It is just a cheap nitrogen fix we can no longer afford. Green compost and intelligent cover crop programs can provide all the benefits of compost with cow manure and none of the dangers.

    1. Don’t shoot the messenger: If I was growing lettuce or spinach down wind from a building being demolished with asbestos in it, or a plant that produced Anthrax, would you blame the lettuce or spinach if it got into the food chain?

  3. Require all cattle feeding and grazing operations to take the responsibility to insure that this biohazard does not leave their property, not blame those around these operations for its effects.

E. coli issues in produce appear to be on the rise and the results more and more hazardous to the population at large. Perhaps with the heavy use of antibiotics in the beef growing business, we are breeding more resistant forms of E. coli.

Lastly, we as the final processors or shippers need a way to insure that the products that leave our facilities are safe. There is one very obvious answer: Irradiation.

Even though many groups have jumped on the anti-irradiation band wagon, this is a proven technology to eliminate E. coli and many other pathogens. If growers had a “Right to Irradiate” law, then those businesses or individuals who did not want irradiated produce would have the right to purchase it, but then they could step into the chain of custody line and take personal responsibility if these products contained pathogens, not try to put the blame back on the grower.

I think these proposals must be legitimately considered before the next outbreak of E. coli or some other bio hazard and the media says, “Well, it must be the lettuce because cheese and meat are safe.”

— Tom Russell
Dynasty Farms / Pacific International Marketing

This letter is important for four reasons:

First, an important organic grower and marketer is going on the record saying that all raw manure and even composted cow manure should be banned on all fresh produce fields.

Second, Tom is contributing to a mind shift in the industry. Instead of seeing E. coli 0157:H7 as a natural phenomenon that the industry is obligated to respond defensively to, we are starting to realize that cow manure as a carrier for E. coli 0157:H7 is, as Tom puts it, a “bio-hazard” and that those who are introducing the manure to the environment have a responsibility to make sure that this bio-hazard does not leave their property.

Third, in raising the issue of antibiotics in the beef industry, he is directing inquiry at why we have E. coli 0157:H7 and why it is so virulent.

Fourth, an important organic grower and marketer is saying that we better look hard at irradiation and is urging a “Right to Irradiate” law.

We would like to express our great appreciation for this letter. Tom’s willingness to step out and say these things clearly is a real contribution to the trade’s discussion of these issues.

Here at the Pundit, we’ve pioneered the idea that the industry has to stop playing defense and must hold those responsible who are polluting the environment with dangerous pathogens.

We’ve also been calling for the banning of manure, most recently right here. We’ve also been calling for the industry to stop assuming irradiation is inconceivable — in pieces such as this one, which you can read here.

But Tom’s position in the industry is such that his letter means these ideas are starting to gather force. And, as Victor Hugo reminded us, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

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