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Organic Dodges A Bullet

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 18, 2006

Natural Selection Foods issued another statement regarding the E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach:

Based on our work with the US Food & Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services, we have confirmed that no organic products of any kind, including Earthbound Farm spinach or other products, have been linked to this outbreak at this time.

At this point in the investigation, all of the manufacturing codes taken from spinach packaging retained by patients are from packages of conventional (non-organic) spinach. However, the investigation is still underway.

It is unclear how many consumers saved their spinach bags, and Natural Selection Foods did not end the recall of its organic spinach lines, so the significance of this announcement is not certain. Still, assuming this holds up, the organic industry dodged quite a bullet. Things are still murky but issues remain.

Some organic proponents will be upset to learn that Natural Selection was processing organic and non-organic product in different sections of the same plant, much as people who look to eat kosher wouldn’t be thrilled to learn that pork and kosher beef are being processed in the same plant.

Just as organic advocates attack GMOs in part because of fear of GMOs drifting into organic fields, skeptics may wonder if the use of manure in organic agriculture couldn’t contribute to water run-off that can harm conventional as well as organic growers. Many organic farms are located in the midst of conventional growers as the use of insecticides by conventional growers can create a “bug-free” zone that facilitates organic farming.

What is clear is that the only thing retailers have wanted to talk to me about since word broke is whether I believe that this crisis had something to do with manure used in organic agriculture. It seems inevitable, regardless of the specific product involved in this outbreak, that the involvement of Natural Selection Foods will lead to a double-check on the food safety aspect of organic farming.

It is a little ironic. So intense has been retail interest in organics over the past few months that if you were a vendor and wanted to sell a major retailer fresh produce, it has been important to work the word organic into your first sentence. Even if the vendor doesn’t actually sell organic produce, it has been wise to mention the term — otherwise the retailer won’t pay any attention.

I’m not opposed to organic. It is a marketing strategy that presents consumers a choice, and consumers should be given choices.

But the difficulty many have always had with the organic movement is that its proponents do not want to simply offer a choice, such as chocolate instead of vanilla, ginger ale instead of root beer, cheddar instead of brie, but to claim a kind of superiority for the product that the science simply doesn’t support.

It is also true that there are real risks in organic growing methods. I have been warning about these dangers for at least seven years. You can read a column I wrote on the subject in 1999 right here. Because organic agriculture was the original method of growing agricultural products, organic methods have never been subject to the same kind of rigorous scrutiny they would be subject to if they were proposed today.

ANOTHER LOOK AT ORGANICS

In many ways, Natural Selection Foods is the biggest victim, and an innocent one at that, of the whole situation. I have no doubt they followed all recommended food safety procedures. They are a class act. But position in the marketplace means something, and word that Natural Selection Foods, the nation’s largest processor of organic fresh-cut salad, was the probable source behind the outbreak will inevitably lead to a reassessment of the move to organically grown produce.

This all has nothing to do with Natural Selection Foods. They are the most reputable of companies. The ownership and top executives are people I would trust to the end. Indeed one of the reasons this is going to be a problem for organics is that it can’t be dismissed as some substandard operator. These guys are the best, they have the financial, technological and managerial resources to do the very best job in organic produce — and they execute. So if they have a problem, it means anyone could have a problem.

It is important to note that the FDA has not found, and may never find, actual bacteriological evidence that ties this outbreak to Natural Selection Foods. Even if such a connection was made, that doesn’t mean it had anything to do with organic growing. There could be a problem in a packing plant or somewhere else along the chain. And, so far, of course, Natural Selection Foods says the package codes found are linked to non-organic production.

Still, E. coli is a feces-based bacteria. And composted manure is still permitted in organic agriculture. Even if organic wasn’t affected this time, the issue, as part of an industry-wide reassessment of food safety, is whether there are food safety risks as a result of organic farming that might cause a problem in the future. Natural Selection Foods packs for many people, but its own biggest label is Earthbound Farm. Let me quote from the Earthbound Farm web site:

We use good quality compost, which recycles plant and sometimes animal waste materials, and turns them into nature’s best plant food, containing high-quality organic matter and beneficial microorganisms.

Note what they are saying: They use animal manure.

They acknowledge the danger. That is why they explain that they compost:

Before compost can be applied to a field, it reaches and maintains an internal temperature of 131 to 149 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 days to kill any disease-causing bacteria.

Note that they don’t promise third-party verification of the composting and, of course, there is no way to guarantee that every molecule in every batch of compost sustained this temperature for this period.

Besides there is more:

We also use pelletized chicken manure, which has been heat-steam processed to kill unwanted bacteria.

And still more:

We may also use pelletized feather meal, pelletized chicken manure, fish slurry, and pelletized bat and seabird guano.

Now there are real risks to the use of manure in agriculture — including E. coli. How should these risks be dealt with? One could make a strong case that the use of animal manure in organic agriculture should simply be banned. After all, can you imagine the outcry if a chemical company proposed to use a chemical that could potentially kill people — as E. coli 0157:H7 can and has — and the protection was that it should be heated up for five days? Sometimes by the farmer himself.

MANURE USE

The organic community is always looking to make sure that the National Organic Standards deal with relatively minor threats such as irradiation or GMOs. Surely the community ought to address the issue of manure use in organic agriculture.

Look at some excerpts from Earthbound Farms’ “Position statement on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Food”:

We feel strongly that consumers have the right to know how their food is grown and what it contains, so they can make informed decisions about the foods they purchase and consume.

Earthbound Farm believes that genetically modified food has not yet been proved to be safe, and that it presents the possibility of long-term risks to the environment and to humans. Yet there is no legislation that requires the labeling of genetically modified foods.

We at Earthbound Farm believe that this lack of labeling denies consumers their basic right to know what is in their food.

Yet, feces-related illnesses have caused many more people to get sick and/or die than have genetically modified foods. Why shouldn’t consumers have at least the same level of protection regarding foods grown in soil enriched with manure, composted or not, as the organic community demands regarding GMO’s?

If they won’t ban animal manure use, would the organic community accept the same kind of warning label they demand for GMOs with organic produce grown in soil enriched with animal feces?

ORGANICS REEXAMINED

It seems likely that this whole cloud arising around organics will cause a rethinking on the very nature of organic agriculture.

For example, there is a popular myth that organically grown produce is grown chemically free. But, for the most part, only synthetic chemicals are banned. So, if a plant produces a poison that can be extracted and used to kill insects, that poison can be spread liberally. Many organic substances such as sulfur, copper and more are used in organic agriculture. And, in many cases, because these organic substances are less effective than their synthetic counterparts, far higher application rates are used. You can read an interesting article on this issue here. This is an excerpt:

“…many organic pesticides are used more intensively per acre than non-organic pesticides. This is due to the lower effectiveness of organic pesticides compared to their synthetic counterparts.

Fungicides effectively illustrate this. The primary organic fungicides are sulfur and copper. Both products are mined from natural mineral ores. Both are toxic to a broad range of organisms and are long-term soil and environmental contaminants. Both are applied at significantly higher rates of active ingredient than synthetic fungicides. According to the NCFAP data, 13.7 million pounds of copper was used to treat 3.3 million acres of crops in 1997 at an average rate of over 4 pounds per acre. Nearly 78 million pounds of sulfur was used on 2.2 million acres applied at an average of over 34 pounds per acre. In contrast, only 40 million pounds of synthetic fungicides were used to treat over 25 million acres at an average rate of only 1.58 lbs. per acre. This is less than half the average rate for copper and less than 5 percent the average rate for sulfur.”

Both sulfur and copper are toxic substances to many different creatures, and both remain in the soil and environment for extended periods. Is it just obvious to everyone that fields laced with sulfur and/or copper are somehow healthier for people or the environment than fields where a synthetic substance was used?

None of this really matters very much if organic is one, two or three percent of our food supply. But the problem with retailers jumping on the organic bandwagon is that they want one of two things: either it is just a marketing tool or, for those companies under attack, it is a refuge in which one can talk about being virtuous.

To put it another way, it is treated like a religion. Nobody questions why products need to be kosher. The answer is that some people believe that it must be so. It is not a proposition that can be subjected to analytical reasoning.

But here, retailers have the opportunity to ask hard questions. Should manure be used in organic agriculture? How can we be certain that it is composted properly? Is actual use of chemicals actually reduced with organic techniques?

It doesn’t mean that organic is finished. Indeed, if handled well, organic may come back a stronger product, built on more solid data and improved farming techniques — thus better positioned to grow in the future.

But among the many casualties of the Great Spinach Contamination of 2006 is the intellectual free ride that eliminated the need for the organic community to demonstrate the superiority of its growing methods. We now see clearly that the damage of a mistake is so great that skepticism is and must be the order of the day.

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