Poop's been making a lot of headlines lately - and it's not just the usual news about W wiping his tush with the Bill of Rights (although that's unfortunately still going on too). Remember WAY back when - last September - when 200+ cases of E. coli came from Dole brand spinach grown in Salinas Valley, CA? Well... drumroll please!... they found the smoking cow pie.
I've got a few other news stories here for you too, to hopefully paint a more complete picture of the role poop's been playing in our food supply and our government. Hope nobody's eating while reading this.
According to the CDC, the spinach E. coli outbreak last year sickened an estimated 4000 people, given the few cases in any outbreak that are actually reported. Even going by reported cases, 205 people in 26 states fell ill and three (including a toddler) died.
At long last, investigators found the exact source of the specific strain of E. coli O157:H7 at fault. It came from spinach grown on a 50-acre field owned by Paicines Ranch - a ranch that raises 2000 cattle in the town of Paicines, CA. The found that genetic strain in 26 samples of poop, soil, and suface water there.
The San Benito River, which flows through the ranch and picks up E. coli from cattle manure, could have tainted the ranch's well water. The river water might have percolated into the groundwater tapped by the wells, the report says. Also, the ranch has a large population of feral pigs that could have spread feces to the spinach. Fences on the ranch had holes and looked as though pigs had dug under them.
Tainted Spinach Tied to Cattle Ranch by Marla Cone and Rong-Gong Lin II. LA Times, March 24, 2007
How did spinach grown on a cattle ranch wind up in Dole brand bags? Paicines Ranch leases cropland to a company called Mission Organics. The story goes that the spinach was contaminated there, but it might have spread further after at a Natural Selection Foods packaging plant - its next stop on its journey from the ground to the grocery store. Ultimately, the spinach (which was grown organically but neither certified nor labeled "organic") went to grocery stores under the Dole label.
OK - so the next steps obviously ought to involve making sure this doesn't happen again. Naturally, the Bush administration and the Governator are totally on top of things, both doing a heckuva job:
The FDA has asked produce growers and processors since 1998 to follow a long list of steps to minimize the danger of pathogens on fresh fruits and vegetables, including recommendations for water testing, worker hygiene, handling of manure and control of wild animals. Then, in 2004 and 2005, the FDA sent letters to growers of leafy greens expressing concern about outbreaks and again advising them to follow the guidelines. The guidelines, known as Good Agricultural Practices, are voluntary and no field inspections are conducted.
Voluntary guidelines! Gee, that'll work. It always does, you know. Just ask CA State Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) who said:
the report "sounds like a broken record" and "is devoid of any action plan." He called it "shameful" that state regulators "have relegated themselves to the position of simple spectators to the most deadly E. coli outbreak emanating from California."
It's hard to disagree with that statement when the last decade has produced 72 bacterial and viral outbreaks caused by contamination of fruits and veggies - and of those, 22 came from leafy greens.
California's taking action by instituting a brand new voluntary agreement on April 1 (as the industry-led, voluntary approach is supported by Schwartenegger & co). Yum, that makes me crave Dole-brand spinach.
If that ain't enough to make you hungry, check this out:
The Environmental Protection Agency plans to exempt farms from having to report emissions of ammonia and other air pollutants and also spell out that manure is not a hazardous waste when it is used properly as a fertilizer.
EPA To Exempt Farms from Pollution Reporting by Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, March 20, 2007
So let's see here... farms are supposed to disclose what they are emitting so people can figure out which pollutants are in the air. Big Ag finds such a requirement to be a paperwork burden and embarrassing - not to mention the inconvenience of fines up to $25,000 for failure to comply with reporting requirements.
Apparently a judge held up this requirement in a case involving Tyson back in 2003, and Congress has yet to budge on the issue, so Bush's EPA is giving Big Ag what they want anyway. Isn't it beautiful to see democracy in action? You know, checks and balances...
If you're holding your stomach and panicking over what is still safe to eat, read on. Now that it's the end of March, chances are there's a farmers' market or two starting up soon in your area, and it's probably the perfect time to join a CSA as well.
To look for farmers' markets, try http://www.localharvest.org - they let you put in your zip code and they tell you what's nearby.
If you haven't heard of CSA's before (community supported agriculture), they are essentially membership programs to local farms. You pay up front to receive regular boxes of farm fresh produce and the farm delivers them throughout the season.
Depending on the CSA, you may be able to get veggies, fruits, flowers, salads, beef, coffee, or more. CSAs also vary in their payment and membership options. The one I joined last year allowed a friend and me to share biweekly boxes from May to December for $190 apiece. I lost 15 lbs on my "CSA diet" (which I've already started gaining back now that I work in a bakery...). The best part of the experience was the opportunity to try new foods - especially because each box came with a newsletter telling us how to prepare the veggies we had received.
Please accept my apology for wrecking your lunch... or you can just blame Bush and Schwartzenegger for it, like I do.