Well, the New York Times is reporting that Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, CA, is voluntarily recalling its Earthbound Farm brands of prepackaged organic spinach and salad mixes — sold throughout Whole Foods and numerous other chains — as well as prepackaged spinach it processes for lots of other companies, including Dole. At least 94 cases of illnesses from E. coli have been reported in 20 states.
This is really bad news for the organic industry, and here’s why. Expect to see Big Agriprop purveyors like the Center for Consumer Freedom (see post below) trot out the old chestnut that organic food is dangerous for you because — yikes — those hippie-dippy farmers use cow manure for fertilizer. And you know what lives in cow manure? A dangerous little bacteria called E. coli. Look out, kids!
The truth is, everybody — organic and industrial — uses manure. If they didn’t, we’d be drowning in it. One dairy cow produces more than 10 tons of shit a year. Except organic producers are the only ones who have regulations for its use. To get the USDA’s “certified organic” label, farmers can’t use “raw manure less than 120 days prior to harvesting crops whose edible portion has direct contact with soil or soil surface, or less than 90 days prior to harvesting crops whose edible portion does not have direct contact with soil or the soil surface” (here are the regulations; search for “manure”).
Most organic farmers use compost, not raw manure, both because it’s more effective and because the high-heat aerobic digestion of bacteria in manure makes it a lot safer. And most E. coli outbreaks come from undercooked meat or dairy, not from produce.
You know what worries me the most about this outbreak? That thanks to overuse of antibiotics in industrial feedlot animals, this particularly virulent strain of E. coli could prove antibiotic resistant. (To learn more, read about the Centers for Disease Control’s Get Smart on the Farm program, which hopes to educate farmers about antibiotic use in animals. Certified organic meat, by the way, also means no antibiotics used.)
Anyway, I’ll be buying my organic spinach from the farmers market for a bit. And cooking it.