Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Organic spinach behind e-coli outbreak

In recent days an outbreak of E. coli in the US has killed one and caused over 114 to become seriously ill. Sixteen people had kidney failure as result of the infection. People in 21 states have reportedly become ill.

Federal health authorities say they have found the source. It seems the spinach came from Natural Selection Foods which grows organic foods for the lucrative, but necessarily healthier, market. So far over 114 people have become sick. Officials say this form of E. coli is especially nasty causing severe vomitng and diarrhea. It is potentially deadly.

Interviews with victims of the virus traced it spinach and ultimately to the organic brand sold in most American grocery stores. In recent years outbreaks of illnesses from eating produce, as opposed to meat, has increased dramatically.

One reason could be the increased consumption of organic products. The Centre for Global Issues explained the link several years ago. A major source of E. coli bacteria is cow manure "and organic farmers use large amounts of cattle manure to provide the nitrogen fertilizer necessary for their crops to grow." As they rather prophetically explained this bacteria "can actually get inside the tissues of such food plants as lettuce and spinach where it can't be washed off." They explain that the manure is not put directly on the plants but used in composting. But for composting to kill the bacteria the heap must get hot enough, long enough, to kill the bacteria. And that doesn't always happen especially with this strain of E. coli which is very heat resistant.

Apparently officials studying the outbreak believe "contaminated fertlizer may have spread the bacteria to the spinach."

Dr. Dean Cliver is professor of food safety at the University of California/Davis and he said: "Personally, if I knew something was grown with conventional chemical fertilizers, I would feel it was extra safe." One obvious solution is food irradiation but the organic industry doesn't want that either. Dennis Avery, in a opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, claimed that "recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)" showed "people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria."

In 1997 Vegetarian Times was upset about a "spate of news reports about E. coli contamination of apple cider and apple juice". They were upset, and rightly so, that some people thought "all organic produce carries the E. coli pathogen...." Of course not "all organic produce" is infected. That was never the issue. But the likelihood of infection is higher. But Vegetarian Times reports, "we are happy to report the experts believe organic produce is probably safer than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables."

Who were the experts they found? They quoted the executive director of the Organic Trade Association and a certification coordinator for the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Hardly unbaised "experts". One of the experts assures the readers not to worry because, "Seventy perent of all organic farmers use compost, not manure." So about one-third uses manure directly and the rest use it indirectly. Composting does kill a lot of bacteria but as we've already shown it is unreliable and the new strains of bacteria are resistant to heat which is what composting relies upon.

They also assured readers saying that pathogens like E. coli "can grow in almost any kind of environment and are no more likely to favor organics as a host than conventionally grown frutis and vegetables." True but irrelevent. Yes, if E. coli is introduce to spinach it will infect the conventional and the organic equally. What is not equal is the likelihood of the bacteria being introduced. Convention produce which uses man-made fertlizer is not likely to come in contact with E. coli the way organic produce is. That's the difference.

While numerous organic and vegetarian website have maintained that infection of organic produce from E. coli is unlikely the Los Angeles Times reports "eight previous outbreaks of E coli O157:H7 nationally since 1995, all linked to lettuce and spinach..." At least 217 people became ill in the previous infections and two died. It also reports that officials have said tht while boiling spinach might kill the bacteria there are no guidelines "on how long and at what temperature to cook them to ensure safety." Surely this would apply to the temperature and length of the composting process as well.