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Pundit’s Mailbag — Transitional Ground

We received a note regarding our coverage of food safety and the spinach/E. coli crisis:

Why don’t you delve into the real spinach debacle! The field in question was organically grown on transitional ground! Organic growers use far more pesticides (sulfur, oils, etc.) per acre than conventional growers. These phonies are getting a food safety free ride!

— Jeff Hitchcock
Vice President
Boggiatto Produce, Inc.

The interaction between organic and a spinach crisis revolving around Natural Selection Foods was bound to raise questions about organics. The minute people heard E. coli and Natural Selection Foods, many said it could be poorly composted manure. There was real fear that it could destroy the whole organic movement.

Natural Selection Foods got ahead of this issue fast and issued a statement exonerating organics. The statement, though technically correct, caused some controversy since the FDA and CDC had not ruled out any product.

In any case, we published a piece entitled Organic Dodges A Bullet ,which dealt quite thoroughly with the issues regarding organic agriculture.

When government food safety people were telling industry leaders that, absolutely, organic product is implicated, we thought this odd as it seemed unlikely that both organic and conventional product from the same plant would have an E. coli outbreak at the same time. This led us to hypothesize that, perhaps, it was all organic product but some was simply being sold as conventional. We never got a formal statement from anyone on this issue, but we have been told that Natural Selection Foods informed the firms it co-packed for that it was not organic product.

Equally, nobody has issued a formal statement saying that the implicated ranch was transitional — but that has been told to the Pundit by more than 20 people deeply involved in Salinas agriculture, and now Jeff is signing his name to it.

It certainly raises the stakes for organics. Although the government has focused on wild pigs since the same strain of E. Coli 0157:H7 that was found on the spinach bags was found in the digestive tract of a wild pig, that doesn’t prove anything. It is possible, for example, that both the E. coli 0157:H7 on the spinach bags and in the digestive tract of the pig could have had a common origin — such as incorrectly composted manure used to fertilize the organically grown acreage that was being marketed as conventional since they didn’t have their three-year transition finished.

We don’t know. Presumably the government is considering this possibility.

The Pundit has, on several occasions, stated the opinion that the use of manure in modern commercial agriculture is unacceptable and should be banned. Certainly we need, at a minimum, a much more rigorous program to make sure compost is properly done. This would have to include a third-party certification.

Jeff’s broader point about sulfur, oils, etc., was dealt with in Organic Dodges A Bullet and raises a difficult question. As we wrote:

Both sulfur and copper are toxic substances to many different creatures, and both remain in the soil and environment for extended periods. Is it just obvious to everyone that fields laced with sulfur and/or copper are somehow healthier for people or the environment than fields where a synthetic substance was used?

But the bigger issue on these things may be marketing. Many people think that organic means “grown without pesticides, fungicides and chemicals” — this isn’t true, and so products that are piggybacking on that image are marketing deceptively. These things usually come home to roost and with the fissures in the organic community over issues such as “locally grown,” it will probably be soon.

The Pundit extends appreciation to Jeff for being willing to stick his neck out and thus help lead the industry discussion on this important issue.

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