By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
When the German government reported a few days ago that sprouts from an organic farm in Northern Germany may be the source of the world’s worst E. coli outbreak, it prompted strong reaction from some organic advocates.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy group, issued a news release noting that the meat industry appears to be the biggest source of trouble when it comes to super-toxic pathogens.
“Regardless of which food turns out to have been contaminated with deadly E. coli, it is important to remember that the underlying cause of new, highly toxic strains of foodborne pathogens seems to be the relatively new practice of raising beef and dairy cattle in highly concentrated factory farm conditions, instead of on pasture,” said Mark A. Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
Cattle, in particular, are being stripped of their ability to quash E. coli in their systems by the way they are treated and fed in industrial settings, Kastel said. Grass-fed cattle have naturally acidic gastric juices that kill E. coli bacteria. But studies show that when cattle are fed a high proportion of grain as they are in modern feedlots, they are no longer able to clear the E. coli from their systems. The pathogen is passed along in their manure and meat.
The manure of these animals becomes a key agent for spreading the E. coli because it is used in both conventional and organic farming operations to fertilize plants.
It is the manure, a byproduct of livestock production, that often turns out to be at the center pathogenic food contamination, Cornucopia stressed.
“There is nothing inherently dangerous about raw spinach, raw cucumbers or raw sprouts, which are dangerous only when they are contaminated with manure from industrial-style factory farms,” Kastel said.
Furthermore, he noted, “studies have shown that organic farms and organic foods are safer than conventional foods. Not only are they much less likely to be contaminated with chemical residues, pesticides, and fumigants, they are also not as likely to be contaminated with manure.”
As for organic sprouts – which are still under suspicion as a possible cause of the German outbreak, though early tests have come back negative — Cornucopia said that their safety history in the U.S. is better than for conventionally grown sprouts.
A review of the 10 most recent food contamination episodes involving sprouts that were recalled in the U.S. found that 9 of the cases involved conventionally grown sprouts; only one case involved organic sprouts, Cornucopia reported.
The sprouts recalls, dating back to 2008, involved listeria and salmonella infections, which can cause food poisoning among people who consume the contaminated vegetables. None involved E. coli, the bacteria that’s killed 24 people and sickened more than 2,200 in the German outbreak that began last month.
The Cornucopia research suggests that sprouts are a higher risk food for infections, though not for E. coli. Consumer food experts say that’s because sprouts are grown in warm, humid conditions that can facilitate the growth of germs.
To protect yourself, the Organic Trade Organization urges sprouts buyers to purchase only crisp, fresh looking sprouts; keep them adequately refrigerated at below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure to wash them well.
Organic advocates say that foods grown under the U.S. organic certification rules are less likely to be contaminated by E. coli because any manure used for fertilizing produce must be applied well in advance of harvest, allowing enough time for the pathogen to die off.
National Organic Program (NOP) rules require that “raw manure be incorporated into the soil a minimum of 120 days prior to planting where the edible portion of the crop could come into contact with the soil” or “a minimum of 90 days for crops where the edible portion does not come in contact” with the soil.
The Organic Trade Association also points to the use of antibiotics in conventional livestock production as a factor that contributes to and complicates bacterial illnesses. The routine use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture causes bacteria, like E. coli, to mutate and develop antibiotic-resistant strains. When humans become infected, they may not respond to the usual antibiotic treatments.
The OTA cites studies that have shown that the manure from animals treated with antibiotics may even be transferring the medicine to plants grown in manure-fertilized soil.
Organic operations, though, are not allowed to treat animals with antibiotics, making the manure generated on an organic operation less likely to foster super-toxic bacteria.
The OTA believes organic farming is healthier for humans in the long-run.
“Because organic practices recognize and respect the powerful nature of antibiotics, organic practices protect human health in the long term. Organic practices prohibit the use of hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in animal feed for the purpose of stimulating the growth or production of livestock,” the organization states.
“If an antibiotic is used to restore an animal to health, that animal cannot be used for organic production or be sold, labeled or represented as organic. Thus, organic practices avoid the abuse of antibiotics that could have profound consequences for treatment of disease in humans, including the serious dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” according to the OTA’s position paper on antibiotics.
The E. coli outbreak in Germany has been said to be caused by a super-virulent strain that has proven to be resistant to many antibiotics. The episode appears to have begun in Hamburg, Germany and has mainly affected Germans. It began in early May and has killed 24 people. More than 2,200 people have been affected, and nearly 700 remain hospitalized, many with a complication known as Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), in which the kidneys fail.
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