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Organics, GMOs And Irradiation:
The Voice Of Science

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 15, 2007

Here is a bit of a joke, but it may not be funny. In the journal Nature Biotechnology, the editorial content of which includes research related to genetically modified foods, there is a bit of correspondence in its current edition. It starts out with a lambasting letter to the editor as a Craig Holdrege of The Nature Institute, an advocacy group for organics, attacks an editorial from an earlier edition:

Clearly, editorials provide a journal the opportunity to express opinions. But your October editorial “Why silence is not an option” goes too far by misrepresenting some basic facts.

The editorial laments that biotech crops get bad press whereas organic crops, when something goes awry, seem to come away unscathed. Your example is the recent contamination of fresh spinach with the food pathogen Escherichia coli O157:H7, which led to numerous human illnesses and, up to now, four deaths. You insinuate that organic spinach was the carrier of the pathogen. That is not the case. The manufacturing codes from the contaminated bags of spinach have, to date, all been from conventionally and not organically grown spinach. The conventionally grown spinach was packaged at the same warehouse as Earthbound Farm’s organic spinach.

You go on to decry that no one has pointed out that “the combinations of ‘organic’ and ‘spinach’ [are] simply a time-bomb waiting to go off.” You provide absolutely no evidence for this radical claim. I would expect more substance and less hyperbole from a scientific journal. The problem of E. coli O157:H7contamination is complex. The largest known reservoir of these pathogens is the colon of cattle. When cattle are fed large portions of grain — as is the case in feedlots and large factory farms — both the number of E. coli and their acid resistance rise significantly. This increases the likelihood that pathogenic E. coli — including O157:H7 — will survive and reproduce. Perhaps 30–50% of grain-fed cattle harbor E. coli O157:H7. Because the strain is acid resistant, if it contaminates uncooked food it survives the acid environment of human stomachs, which normally kills most bacteria, and then can cause serious illness.

Manure and runoff from factory farms and feedlots can easily pollute streams and groundwater — water used to irrigate those huge vegetable farms in California that produce most of the produce for the United States, including fresh spinach. The US Food and Drug Administration sees contamination of irrigation water supplies as a primary means of spreading E. coli O157:H7 and warned California growers about this danger in a letter in November 2005. Factory farming and concentration of the food supply is the issue here, not organic food. Your editorial got it wrong.

In fact, researchers studying E. coli O157:H7 found that when cattle feed was shifted from grain to forage (hay or silage), both the pathogen population in the cattle and the bacterial acid resistance dropped drastically. Although it may be hard to swallow, you’re probably much safer eating a hamburger made from grass-fed beef slaughtered in a local slaughter house and topped with a piece of lettuce from your neighbor’s organic farm that used the grass-fed cow’s composted manure as a fertilizer than you are eating products of all-American industrial agriculture.

I would agree with your editorial’s conclusion that “there is a basic truth that bears repetition: and that is that basic truths bear repetition.” The basic truth I missed in your editorial is that the recent food contamination has to do with systemic problems in conventional industrial food production and processing. Don’t blame organic farming.

Here is the joke: The initial editorial wasn’t an attack on organics at all, it was an ironic joke pointing out how unacceptable it would be to the research community if the same type of scaremongering and distortions that are routinely applied to GMOs were ever applied to organics. Here is how the publication responded:

It is instructive that a proponent of organic agriculture is outraged and prompted to speak out against an editorial that intentionally (and ironically) sought to apply to organic spinach the types of media distortions that are all too often applied to genetically modified (GM) products. If only the industrial and academic research community were as forthright in defending GM products from media distortions and scaremongering, our editorial would have been unnecessary.

When we wrote that “all spinach was bad for consumers, organic fresh produce per se was hazardous” and “combinations of ‘organic’ and ‘spinach’ [are] simply a time-bomb waiting to go off,” our intention was not to alert readers to the explosive dangers of organic spinach, nor to tarnish the image of spinach or organic food as a whole — it was simply to illustrate the preposterousness of some of the claims concerning GM food that are bandied about by the media without challenge.

As stated clearly in our editorial, the facts presented concerning the suspected source of contamination were correct at the time Nature Biotechnology went to press. Subsequently, Natural Selections Foods’ Earthbound Farm did issue a press release claiming that manufacturing codes from packaging retained by patients were all from nonorganic spinach — a claim parroted widely and without critique in the media; however, what was not widely reported was that these codes were obtained for only a relatively small number of victims. So the possibility that organic spinach was responsible for illness in other patients has never been ruled out by federal authorities; indeed, perhaps an important question to ask is why Natural Selections Foods issued press releases absolving its organic products from culpability only three days into a national outbreak of a food-borne illness for which no products had been cleared by regulatory authorities and in which the source of the E. coli O157:H7 contamination had yet to be ascertained.

We agree with Holdrege that “the problem of E. coli O157:H7 contamination is complex.” Thus far, this strain has been found in every cattle herd tested by US Department of Agriculture researchers, including animals raised on open pastures at low densities in remote areas. On the basis of information available to date, government investigators have traced the most likely source of the September E. coli outbreak to a herd of cattle raised on a pasture-based, grass-only beef ranch — not “cattle fed large portions of grain as is the case in feedlots and large factory farms,” as insinuated by Holdrege.

The grazing cattle were about a half mile from the field where the tainted spinach was grown. E. coli O157:H7 was found in samples from a feral pig killed on the ranch, together with evidence that pigs had breached the fencing around the spinach fields. The supposition is that wild pigs spread the E. coli from the cattle pastures to the spinach fields.

Holdrege is correct that industrialized agriculture and its distribution system contribute to the problem of food-borne illness in the United States. Indeed, cattle on US feedlots produce more than a billion tons of manure every year — manure chockfull not only of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7, but also high concentrations of pharmaceuticals used to medicate feedlot animals — which can end up on fields and in food. At the same time, increasingly centralized food washing and distribution systems are likely to continue to give microbes ample opportunities to cross-contaminate a vast amount of our food.

But organic food is not an absolute solution. It is not going to feed the entire country (or indeed the whole world) — it is an expensive lifestyle choice available to only a minority of consumers. And contrary to the wholesome hamburger picture painted by Holdrege, organic practices may even increase the likelihood of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination.

The most comprehensive peer-reviewed study to look at contamination of produce found that organic fruits and vegetables are three times more likely to be contaminated with bacteria than conventional produce; indeed, of all the produce tested, the study found the pathogen Salmonella exclusively in organic lettuce and organic green peppers. Of a total of 15 farms that had E. coli–positive samples, 13 were organic and only two were conventional.

There is a simple fix available, however, that could stem the rising tide of cases of food-borne illness in the United States. Irradiation of fruits and vegetables would eliminate 99.999% of pathogens. It would have prevented or drastically reduced all of last year’s E. coli outbreaks. And most important of all, it would have saved lives. It’s hard to understand why a country that already irradiates its meat should not do the same to its fruits and vegetables.

This is a high powered scientific journal, and it is worth considering its conclusions:

  1. organic food is not an absolute solution. It is not going to feed the entire country (or indeed the whole world it is an expensive lifestyle choice available to only a minority of consumers.”
  2. “The most comprehensive peer-reviewed study to look at contamination of produce found that organic fruits and vegetables are three times more likely to be contaminated with bacteria than conventional produce; indeed, of all the produce tested, the study found the pathogen Salmonella exclusively in organic lettuce and organic green peppers. Of a total of 15 farms that had E. coli–positive samples, 13 were organic and only two were conventional.”
  3. “There is a simple fix available, however, that could stem the rising tide of cases of food-borne illness in the United States. Irradiation of fruits and vegetables would eliminate 99.999% of pathogens. It would have prevented or drastically reduced all of last year’s E. coli outbreaks. And most important of all, it would have saved lives. It’s hard to understand why a country that already irradiates its meat should not do the same to its fruits and vegetables.”

Science is powerful stuff and all too often ignored. The Pundit is buying a subscription to this thought-provoking, and frank-speaking, journal.

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