Media Talking Points

Contact: Mark Kastel, 608-625-2000

The following information is a counter to the attempt by right-wing think tanks (the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, etc.) who are already trying to exploit the spinach E. coli contamination crisis to discredit organic farming practices. Think tank funding for much of this activity comes from Monsanto, DuPont, and other agrichemical manufacturers.

Unless otherwise identified all discussion points can be attributed to The Cornucopia Institute’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst, Mark A. Kastel.

1. Organic Farming Protects Humans, Livestock, and Environment
from Dangerous Profit-Motivated Industrial Agricultural Practices

    A study by the University of Minnesota, published in the May 2004 issue of Journal of Food Protection, concluded that there was no statistical difference between contamination in vegetables grown on conventional and organic Minnesota farms, with chemical fertilizer and composted manure, respectively.

2. Risks from industrial concentration/factory farming

    According to an FDA letter to growers (November 2005): “The FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7 for which fresh or fresh cut-lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle.”
    This agricultural area of California, where this latest contamination crisis originated, produces the majority of the country’s spinach and many other fresh-market vegetables. It is located in a region containing many CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) managing thousands of dairy cows each.
    E. coli and other potent pathogens are known to migrate onto neighboring farms by contamination of surface water and groundwater and/or by becoming airborne through blowing dust from feedlots or farm fields where manure has been spread.
    The FDA’s November 2005 letter went on to say, “E. coli O157-H7 was isolated from sediment in an irrigation canal bordering a ranch that had been identified in three separate outbreaks.”
    “To get this many people sick, it’s got to be the water,” said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who is representing 25 victims of the outbreak. “Thirty years ago, if you bought contaminated lettuce or spinach, just your family would get sick. Now it’s a nationwide outbreak.”
    E. coli O157-H7 is a by-product of grain-based feeding to ruminants (dairy and beef cattle) in an attempt to fatten them up quicker and at a lower cost. The cow’s digestive system (and acid balance) evolved to break down grass, not high-production, refined rations. This health crisis, and past deadly problems with contaminated meat, is a direct by-product of producing cheap, unhealthy cattle.
    The majority of all animal manure, as well as municipal sewage sludge (politely referred to as biosolids–human waste), in this country is spread on conventional crops.

3. Organic safeguards

    Unlike conventional production, the application of raw manure on organic crops is strictly regulated and sewage sludge is prohibited. Most organic manure is composted prior to application, a practice that greatly reduces risk and enhances environmental protection.
    “I am a compliance officer. The USDA has looked into our farmers’ composting practices–even on our smallest farm–they do check if things are not documented. Details ARE looked at. I can prove this because of an USDA audit we had that covered this issue,” said Cissy Bowman, a long-time organic certification expert based in Indiana.
    It should be noted that regardless of scale, all organic food has a mandatory audit trail required, so trace-back in the event of food contamination or questions of certification are possible. This mandatory audit trail does not exist for conventional food.

4. Organic and local – an antidote for the problems of industrial farming

    Furthermore, concentrating much of the nation’s food supply in any given region, and the exponential increase in imports from developing countries, puts our nation’s food security and health at risk.
    There is no reason why spinach cannot be grown, much of the year, as is now being done by small and medium-sized producers in the Midwest and throughout much of the Northeast. The only reason that this is not being done on a larger scale is artificial economies, subsidies, and compromises in quality in an unbridled effort to produce cheaper and cheaper food in this country.
    There has been exponential growth in direct-marketing by farmers at roadside stands, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, and organic farms. It adds great meaning for many consumers to buy organic food directly from the families who produce it, with loving care. These farm families need to be protected from any fallout in the marketplace that might occur due to the practices of large industrial farms in California.

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    The Cornucopia Institute is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Through research, advocacy and economic development our goal is to empower farmers both politically and through marketplace initiatives.

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