Germany’s recent deadly E.coli outbreak was first blamed on tomatoes, then cucumbers, and now the culprit appears to be organic sprouts. This is not incredibly surprising seeing sprouts are grown in a warm and watery environment that is a potential breeding ground for bacteria. What is surprising however, is how some in the media are framing this to be a direct result of organic farming methods. This is unequivocally not the case, and in fact the bacteria’s origin most likely came as a direct result of factory farming of cattle.
Reuters published an article earlier this month titled “E.coli outbreak poses questions for organic farming”. It quoted Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at Britain’s University of East Anglia as saying “organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilizers, carry an extra risk” and “if you’re growing these (sprouts) non-organically, you can separate them from feces in a way that is problematic if you are using organic production methods. Organic production of salad stuffs just may not be as safe as non-organic methods.” Additionally, The Washington Times published an editorial by David Mastio where he stated that “the Obama administration needs to impose a timeout in the expansion or opening of any new organic farms while regulators and federal safety experts examine the ongoing dangers presented by organic food.” As I will explain below, these statements are highly misleading, and in the case of Mastio, just plain ludicrous.
The fact is that both conventional and organic farming methods use manure as fertilizer, and manure has been known to contain pathogens such as E.coli. Organic farming sometimes uses a greater amount of manure-based fertilizers because they avoid using the toxic chemicals and genetic engineering that have become standard with conventional farms. This is the root of Hunter’s and Matio’s claims about safety. They are saying that because more manure is used in organic farming, there is a higher risk for pathogens to enter the food supply. The problem with their arguments is that they are failing to consider fertilizing standards in the organic industry.
All certified organic produce is subject to strict regulation regarding fertilization of soil. The National Organic Program Rules state that “U.S. regulations for organic production require that raw animal manure must be composted unless it is applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with soil; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles.” These are the strictest rules on manure use imposed by any agricultural regulating body in the United States.
The organic industry uses composted manure based fertilizers in the vast majority of cases due to the strict regulations imposed. This means that the fertilizer has been allowed to naturally break down and de-compost. During the process the fertilizer reaches temperatures high enough to kill most of the bacteria present in the manure and the finished product is a nutrient rich soil that is spread on fields. This is merely what nature does everyday and is how soil is created without human interaction.
Conventional farms on the other hand are essentially unregulated when it comes to manure based fertilizers. Raw manure is routinely spread on fields in a manner that would not meet organic regulations on the topic. Furthermore, some conventional farms use sewage sludge as a soil fertilizer, which is completely banned under the USDA organic program. This sewage sludge is also known as biosolids and comes from wastewater treatment plants. The sludge can contain pathogens just like manure in addition to containing heavy metals and toxins.
As you can see, the risk of pathogen contamination is present in both organic and conventional farming methods, but due to strict organic regulations, organic farming does not pose a higher E.coli risk even though manure based fertilizers are used more often. This was confirmed in a 2004 study by the University of Michigan that found there was no statistically significant differences between the prevalence of E.coli in certified organic and conventional produce. Furthermore, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also publicly stated that there is no evidence that organic produce contains higher rates of E.coli than conventional produce.
The deeper question however, is where does this E.coli come from in the first place? To find the answer we need to look to factory farming of cattle. In a traditional feedlot, cattle are fed a diet of corn and soy, and remain in grassless pens where they literally congregate in their own feces. The natural diet of a cow however, is grass eaten as the cattle roam a pasture. As can be seen in the documentary Food Inc. and confirmed by numerous scientific studies, when cows are fed an unnatural diet of corn and soy their digestive system becomes highly acidic and many times clogged. This provides a prime environment for E.coli to grow and mutate. Studies have shown that E.coli is four times more prevalent in grain fed cattle compared to grass fed cattle. Add this to the fact that factory farms routinely injects their animals with antibiotics to prevent sickness (factory farming accounts for 60% of all antibiotic use in the United States), and you have the perfect environment for antibiotic resistant E.coli to mutate. The bacteria is then passed into the feces, which enters streams and rivers through runoff, and is also used for manure based fertilizers. These are the reasons that nearly every modern E.coli outbreak, whether in meat or produce, has been traced back to cattle.
The solution is ultimately to favor a grass-fed, pasture raised model of raising cattle rather than a feedlot based operation. This inherently lowers the existence of E.coli by about 80% according to studies. The risks are lowed even further by the cleaner operation of pasture based cattle farms, where cows do not stand and lay in their own feces and where antibiotics are not used. Even then, there will still be some instances of E.coli in manure, which is why produce farms must follow careful fertilization practices whether they are organic or conventional. If proper composting methods are used, care is taken, and regulation such as organic fertilization standards are enforced, the risks of E.coli contamination in our food supply can be dramatically reduced, if not essentially eliminated.
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