The problem upstream

October 08, 2006

It wasn't the fault of the spinach. The E. coli that sickened 200 people across the country, and killed at least three, has been traced to spinach from the Salinas Valley in California - but how did it get on the spinach? FBI agents acted on warrants last week to look through the paperwork of two companies; ultimately, though, the most important issue is finding the source of the pathogen. It could have been from contaminated processing equipment, but the far more likely explanation is that the E. coli came from cattle businesses upstream from the vegetable farms.

The California Senate has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to look into the question of contaminated agricultural runoff, and though the cattle growers fear they'll be made into scapegoats, it's not hard to understand why they've come under suspicion.

E. coli is a bug that specifically flourishes in the gastrointestinal tract of cattle, and its more virulent strains arose only in the late 1970s, with the introduction of "factory farming" for meat production. Beef today comes from animals that have spent their entire lives in astonishingly cramped conditions and fed a diet that causes quick growth but that depresses the ability to fight disease. It's almost a perfect incubator for illness. To control that and to promote growth, the cattlemen heavily dose their animals with antibiotics - but this only leads to the development of even tougher and more resistant strains of bacteria.

Typically, the animals' manure is spread on surrounding fields in such quantities that contaminated runoff becomes a serious problem. E. coli has been found previously in the Salinas River, but California is hardly the only state with a problem.

It's worth noting that Maryland spinach is about to come on the market, and there should be no reason to avoid it. The factory farming and animal waste issue in this part of the world concerns poultry, but the major growers agreed this year to stop using antibiotics for growth promotion - interestingly, less use of antibiotics should lead to better health. New waste-management techniques in the chicken houses may reduce the manure problem.

But Americans no longer rely on local produce, and the more serious illnesses that are being fostered by factory farming become by definition national problems. The virulent E. coli is a consequence of meat production; the spinach was only the carrier.

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