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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Eliminating E. coli 0157:H7

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 13, 2006

An experienced person in the food processing industry sends this note:

The crux of the problem lies in the enormous amount of antibiotics produced and sold for use in cattle and chicken feeding. E. coli 0157 was created in the gut of a cow as a mutation. My guess is a super strain of salmonella will be next. There has to be a better control on the sale and use of antibiotics in cattle and chicken feeding.

There also has to be a significant safety perimeter between cattle, hog and chicken operations including grazing and the vegetable and fruit growing areas. The waste discharge from these animals is the most likely source of the problems for the vegetable and fruit grower. Crops like leafy vegetables, strawberries and cantaloupes are vulnerable.

I wonder how many of those in FMI have given thought to how to control the use of antibiotics or have spoken to meat, dairy and poultry folks about these issues. I wonder how many growers realize what is going on in the meat and poultry industry.

Although the connection between antibiotics and E. coli 0157:H7 is hypothetical, this letter raises a broader point.

The industry has treated the E. coli/spinach crisis as its problem, and countless committees are meeting to come up with rules that will enable the produce trade to produce safer food. Many are proposing mandatory regulation on produce growers and processors.

But all this is an inherently unsatisfactory solution. No steps the industry can take can guarantee safe produce.

So…

Maybe we need to look at the issue another way. We know E. coli 0157:H7 is sourced from feces.

Now we could get these feces on our products as a result of our employees and laborers. So the industry needs to make every laborer take a course on the importance of utilizing a bathroom and washing hands. We need to make sure facilities are convenient, and we can’t pay people in such a way that they have a financial incentive to avoid a trip to a bathroom.

We also know that these feces could come from fertilizer. So we need to either ban animal manure as a fertilizer or set strict rules on composting, such as manure requiring a third party to certify it has been properly composted, before we let it on our fields.

Wildlife is another possible source of contamination, so we should fence all our fields with fences that go deep enough to stop burrowing animals.

This leaves domestic animals, air and water as possible sources of contamination and, for the most part, the problems with air and water are related to domestic animals. So, at this point, the produce industry would be in the right to demand legal protection against what is basically a form of pollution.

Why in the world should a cattle ranch or dairy farm have the right to pollute water sources with dangerous E. coli 0157:H7? Why in the world should owners of living or growing things have to worry about dried up feces blowing from a cattle ranch or a dairy farm? Why should anyone worry about cattle crossing over into or near a farm growing produce?

Maybe the government regulation we need is an anti-pollution law related to cattle ranches and dairy farms. The law would have four points:

  1. Cattle and dairy cows must be blocked from any free-flowing water so that no feces can pollute the water and thus any produce downstream.
  2. Cattle and dairy cow feces must be picked up and disposed of so that no dried feces may blow outside the ranch.
  3. Cattle and dairy cows must be kept at least one mile from any produce farming field.
  4. All cattle and dairy cow feces must be randomly checked for E.coli 0157:H7. If found, those cows or steers must be put down and disposed of in such a way that the E. coli is not introduced elsewhere.

The goal is two-fold: Safer produce while E. coli 0157:H7 still exists and, ultimately, elimination of this dangerous pathogen from the food supply.

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