Thursday, September 21, 2006

Eat Locally

Looks like a factory to me. Without a union. {Original caption: Fields of greens in California near Natural Selection Foods, which has been implicated in the outbreak.} (Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)

E coli in spinach? Weird, huh? It's all about the corporate farming. It's cheaper to feed cows grain than let them graze on open fields. On their crappy diet, lowering acidity in their stomachs, E coli flourishes. Instead of taking up space on land that can be turned into McMansions, cows are penned cheek to jowl in feedlots, which generate huge amounts of manure: poop. Poop is left in great open ponds that flood when it rains, sending E coli out into the world. So now even your spinach is suspect.

DailyKos: The Poop on Spinach

Starting a few decades ago, Americans outsmarted Mother Nature. We switched our cows' diets from grass and hay to grain. Eating grain isn't particularly good for the cows, but together with antibiotics and hormones, we can house them in feedlots, fatten them up, and slaughter them quicker than if we had let them graze at their own speed in a pasture. Mother Nature, it would seem, is anti-business.

The new diet changed the acidity in cows' digestive tracts and the close living quarters led to a lot of cows and a lot of poop living side by side. That's when the new strain of E. coli, O157:H7, came on the scene. When cows eat grass, the acidity in their digestive tracts usually kills the bacteria, but grain fed cows' tummies do not.

So the mere fact that E. coli O157:H7 got into the water at all is a result of our need for cheap feedlot beef - and one could take it a step further in exploring the interconnectedness of the food system, because cheap feedlot beef is possible due to cheap corn, soy, oilseed, and other commodities, subsidized by government policies that encourage high production and rock bottom prices. Those policies hurt the farmers who produce the commodities (corn, soy, wheat, etc), but they provide an incentive to anyone who wants to use the commodities as cheap inputs for their products - such as feedlot beef.

So many cows in such a small space contaminated the water that presumably flooded the spinach fields. This was the 20th such epidemic linked to lettuce and spinach from Monterey County in the past decade. The outbreaks have caused over 400 sicknesses and 2 deaths. The current epidemic was also felt economically by everyone from growers to farm workers, truckers, packagers, restaurants, grocers, and more.

The LA Times gives us the scope of the problem, without ever mentioning the important connection between corporate farming methods (grain vs. grazing) and its contribution to the E coli outbreaks:

LATimes: E. Coli Pervades Harvest Area
Salinas Valley waterways are known to carry the bacteria that poisoned at least 145 people and killed one who ate tainted spinach.

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