AP 6-6-11: “In a surprising U-turn, German officials said initial tests published Monday provided no evidence that sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany were the cause of the country’s deadly E. coli outbreak.”

Quotations attributable to Mark A. Kastel, Codirector and Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin:

One of the suspected factors in this tragic outbreak of foodborne illness (now preliminarily cleared) was sprouted seeds from an organic farm. There’s a history of pathogenic contamination of fresh food, including sprouts. Correcting statements made over the weekend, the German government stated on Monday, June 6 that it has not found conclusive evidence that the deadly E. coli outbreak can be linked to sprouts from an organic farm.

Regardless of which food turns out to have been contaminated with deadly E. coli, it is important to remember that the underlying cause of new, highly toxic strains of foodborne pathogens seems to be the relatively new practice of raising beef and dairy cattle in highly concentrated factory farm conditions, instead of on pasture.

Beef and dairy cows, which are ruminants, evolved to eat grass, not the high-grain rations that they are given in feedlots, which changes the pH in their rumen and has been linked to the creation of new and more deadly E. coli pathogens. There is nothing inherently dangerous about raw spinach, raw cucumbers or raw sprouts, which are dangerous only when they are contaminated with manure from industrial-style factory farms.

Moreover, studies have shown that organic farms and organic foods are safer than conventional foods. Not only are they much less likely to be contaminated with chemical residues, pesticides, and fumigants, they are also not as likely to be contaminated with manure.

The practice of using manure as fertilizer is common on both conventional and organic farms, but only organic standards require strict management practices regarding its use. For example, organic farmers must compost manure (which kills deadly bacteria) if it is applied to land growing crops for human consumption – a practice that is not required on conventional farms.

Recall data from the US Food and Drug Administration shows that there have been 10 recalls of sprouts in the past 2.5 years (since April 2009), and 9 were because conventional sprouts tested positive for foodborne pathogens (90% conventional, 10% organic). Several outbreaks in the US in the past couple of years have been linked to sprouts, but none were linked directly to organic sprouts.

A strong common denominator in this deadly outbreak in Europe is the scale of production and distribution. Just like the spinach contamination in California, in 2007, the processing and distribution was vast in geographic scope. It’s quite possible that corporate agribusiness has, worldwide, outgrown its ability to control the quality of its products.

An outcome of these food contamination problems has led to exponential growth in the direct marketing of local food by family-scale farmers and artisan food processors. There is strong documentary and anecdotal evidence that sales at member-owned food cooperatives, farmers markets, CSAs (community supported/subscription agriculture farms) and other farmer-direct marketing vehicles have exploded over the past five years.

Consumers are finding assurance in local foods, and are increasingly patronizing farmers and retailers that sell high quality food on a local basis.

Brand Name Product Organism Conventional or Organic Date
Caldwell Fresh Foods Alfalfa Sprouts salmonella Conventional 5/21/2010
Chang Farm Bean and Soy Sprouts Listeria monocytogenes Conventional 5/28/2009
Chang Farm Bean and Soy Sprouts Listeria monocytogenes Conventional 7/14/2009
Calco Brand Alfalfa sprouts Salmonella Conventional 4/23/2009
Kowalke Family Sprouts Alfalfa sprouts Salmonella Conventional 7/6/2009
Specialty Farms Alfalfa sprouts Listeria Organic 7/23/2010 and 7/29/2010
Snow White Food Alfalfa sprouts Salmonella Conventional 8/19/2010
Living Foods Alfalfa sprouts Salmonella Conventional 10/7/2010
Louie’s Various sprouts Salmonella Conventional 3/30/2011
Jonathans Alfalfa sprouts Salmonella The original recall, based on positive test results, was limited to conventional.  The recall was expanded on to include organic, as a precaution.  (no organic products tested positive) 4/19/2011 and 4/24/2011

10 recalls – 9 because conventional sprouts tested positive for contamination.

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