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Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Answers

We recently ran two letters, first, a letter from Jeff Hitchcock of Boggiatto Produce pointing out that the field implicated in the spinach/E. coli outbreak was being farmed organically and marketed as conventional due to its transitional status (farms converting from conventionally grown to organic must go through a three-year transition to make sure the soil is free of synthetic pesticides, etc.) Then we ran a letter from Bob Sanderson of Jonathan’s Sprouts questioning the implication of this.

Today we received another letter on this subject:

Thanks for providing such a lively and engaging forum for discussion of issues relevant to the produce industry. We appreciate your focus on the complicated issues relating to food safety in produce.

Today, I wanted to take a moment to respond to the transitional field and manure issue that you’ve covered, most recently in the Pundit of December 19th.

First, it’s important to understand that until very recently, neither the FDA nor CDHS had identified the farm that was located within the half mile or so of where they had found the cow fecal matter with a strain of E. coli O157:H7 that matched the outbreak strain. So we could not have shared any information on the subject with any certainty. All we knew from the investigators was that they were still investigating each of the four farms identified in the traceback. We knew that one of the four farms was in the first year of its three-year transition period and so was being farmed organically. But, as required by law, the spinach grown on that field was labeled conventional.

On 12/5/2006, at the FMI’s leafy greens conference in Phoenix, Dr. Jeff Farrar of California Department of Health Services (CDHS), announced that the cow fecal matter containing a strain of E. coli O157:H7 that matched the outbreak strain was found in the vicinity of a transitional field. 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. When Dr. Farrar made that announcement, he took care to clarify that they did not suspect that this contamination was in any way related to farming methods, organic or conventional, but rather to environmental issues. Charles Sweat, our President, who also spoke at the conference, made the same clarification.

Finally, 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.

You may or may not be aware of the multi-layered food safety protocols that we at Natural Selection Foods are currently developing and implementing as we work with some of the top food safety scientists in the country. I would like to share that information with you, also, and will follow this email up with a phone call. If you get to it sooner, please feel free to call me.

I hope this information provides some deeper insight into this issue. I look forward to continuing to read your column.

— Samantha Cabaluna
Senior Manager of Communications
Natural Selection Foods

We appreciate Samantha writing to help the industry understand this issue better. We last spoke with Samantha as part of our Pundit Special Science Report in which she detailed the new product testing regimen that Natural Selection Foods instituted after the recent spinach/E. coli outbreak. Today she also gives valuable information:

  • It is vital to remember that, to date, nothing has been found on any spinach field. That makes everything said on the subject conjecture.
  • She also does confirm that the field most proximate to the cow fecal matter that was found to be matching the E. coli 0157:H7 was being farmed organically.
  • She also does state 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.”

This last point strikes the Pundit as crucial for regulatory and consumer attitudes toward organic produce. We would advise Natural Selection Foods to be prepared to release audit reports and other material to back this up.

And, the great news in Samantha’s letter is that contrary to popular perception, its organic growers are not utilizing manure, raw or composted.

Which raises the obvious question: If even organic growers don’t need to use it, why in the world is the produce industry going to bat for this unappealing practice?

No consumer likes the image of their produce growing in manure. Surely we can just ban it on spinach and leafy greens without great consequence for the industry… and gain a lot of consumer and regulatory goodwill while doing it.

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