When news broke that E. coli infections had been linked to raw spinach, some of it coming from certified organic farms, apologists for the conventional food system pounced. Organic vegetable operations can use cattle manure as a natural source of fertility, and E. coli is often present in raw bovine waste. For some commentators, that was enough evidence to indict all organic farms. What was lost in the hysteria were two points: 1) Certified organic farmers are prohibited from using raw manure for at least 90 days before harvesting crops grown for human consumption; and 2) it was soon determined farms were not the source of the outbreak, but that it had happened further up the supply chain. Even so, one Twin Cities radio talk show host used the incident to ask in a highly agitated radio talk show host tone if organic food was actually more dangerous to human health than products produced with pesticides. A better question is this: why does the beef and dairy industry continue to push a production system that is serving as an incubator for highly dangerous bacteria?
You see, E. coli exists in the guts of humans and cattle without managing to make us sick, as food writer Nina Planck recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed. In general our stomachs are acidic enough to kill this bacterium. But one strain of this critter, E. coli O157:H7, loves acid, and it’s the one that can make us sick, even kill us. The intestinal tracts of cattle that feed on grass and hay don’t contain this deadly bacterium. But during the past few decades, cattle have increasingly been raised using intensive grain diets on large-scale factory farms. It turns out grain-based diets create unnaturally acidic stomachs in bovines, creating a perfect environment for O157.
This means that O157 is now an uninvited guest at your supper table, even if only vegetables are on the menu. Liquid manure from factory farms can often find its way into waterways, which then can flood produce operations downstream, contaminating vegetables with nasty things like O157.
Stack on top of that the fact that our meatpacking industry has managed to loosen regulations and speed up production lines to the point where it’s difficult to keep the manure-laced E. coli that’s inside the cattle from getting onto the meat being processed, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Joe Riemann’s interviews with farmers show that the spinach scare is not an indictment of organics at all. Rather it reveals the folly of relying on an industrialized system—organic or conventional— to feed us.
Agribusiness and its friends within the government have known how to nip the O157 problem in the bud for some time. Replacing even some of the intensive feeding of grain with more grass and hay would take care of the problem. It would have the added benefit of reducing the need for antibiotics in beef and dairy production (since a grain-based diet for bovines is so unnatural, the animals need to be fed drugs just to stay healthy enough to keep producing). In addition, many other human health, as well as environmental, benefits are starting to emerge from grass-based livestock production, as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Multiple Benefits of Agriculture project have shown.
Farmer/authoer Joel Salatin often says that the industrialized food system is like one big aircraft carrier, and getting it to change course is a major endeavor. It’s sure showing its lack of nimbleness when it comes to the E. coli issue. Right now, industrialized ag’s course is to feed grain to livestock in large-scale confinement facilities and to deal with all the problems associated with such a system through Band-Aid solutions. That’s why the industry has responded to problems of meat contamination by pushing the irradiation of beef. Land grant researchers, who rely heavily on funding from agribusiness, are working on their own Band-Aid in the form of a vaccine for E. coli. National Public Radio recently reported that such a vaccine, if ever perfected and made commercially viable, would control the acid-resistant strain in cattle’s stomachs. Agribusiness would then be free to keep raising cattle in large-scale confinement facilities. The trouble is, the vaccine doesn’t help deal with all the other problems associated with factory livestock farming: manure-caused pollution and overuse of antibiotics, to name a few.
In this case, the market may be doing an end-run on industry and the government. Consumer demand for grass-based beef and dairy products is rising, and producers in places like New Zealand, Australia and Argentina are only too glad to supply that demand. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the federal government supports factory-style livestock production by easing environmental regulations for large-scale facilities and failing to enforce laws that are supposed to prevent small and medium sized family farmers from being pushed out of the market. It even provides a nice subsidy to factory livestock producers indirectly via a commodity subsidy system that ensures a constant supply of cheap feedgrains.
Farmer Dan Specht once told the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee that America’s livestock industry may be putting itself at a competitive disadvantage by promoting factory farm production to the exclusion of everything else. As recent events show, it may be pulling the vegetable farming business down with it.