September 27, 2006

Why the spinach problem matters to you, even if you don't eat spinach

q. shenaynay

Fa and Beatrice are reading What The Bible Says About Healthy Living by Dr. Rex Russell, which is based on three simple principles:

  1. Eat the food God created for you.
  2. Don't alter God's design.
  3. Don't let any food or drink become your god.

It begins to appear that the current spinach problem is the result of those first two principles being violated on a large scale. Now, some of you, and you know who you are, will be thinking about now, "Yay! QS is going to say we weren't designed to eat spinach!!" Uhh, no. Sorry. God made spinach because you need stuff that's in it.

But the spinach problem is not a spinach problem, really -- it's a cattle problem. It's the cattle industry that violates principles 1 and 2 in this case... and the rest of us suffer the consequences. Including the produce farmers.

Even if you don't eat spinach, please read this article from the New York Times. Because the E coli problem, if uncorrected, will soon be about more than just spinach. Plain and simple: if our food production sources continue to alter God's designs for the creatures He created, we are headed for more problems like the spinach problem.

Leafy Green Sewage

By Nina Planck, NY Times, September 21, 2006

Farmers and food safety officials still have much to figure out about the recent spate of E. coli infections linked to raw spinach. So far, no particular stomachache has been traced to any particular farm irrigated by any particular river.

There is also no evidence so far that Natural Selection Foods, the huge shipper implicated in the outbreak that packages salad greens under more than two dozen brands, including Earthbound Farm, O Organic and the Farmer’s Market, failed to use proper handling methods. Indeed, this epidemic, which has infected more than 100 people and resulted in at least one death, probably has little do with the folks who grow and package your greens. The detective trail ultimately leads back to a seemingly unrelated food industry — beef and dairy cattle.

First, some basic facts about this usually harmless bacterium: E. coli is abundant in the digestive systems of healthy cattle and humans, and if your potato salad happened to be carrying the average E. coli, the acid in your gut is usually enough to kill it. But the villain in this outbreak, E. coli O157:H7, is far scarier, at least for humans. Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms. In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.)

Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold. This is good news. In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home — even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of, say, hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993.

Unfortunately, it would take more than a week to reduce the contamination of ground water, flood water and rivers — all irrigation sources on spinach farms — by the E-coli-infected manure from cattle farms. The United States Department of Agriculture does recognize the threat from these huge lagoons of waste, and so pays 75 percent of the cost for a confinement cattle farmer to make manure pits watertight, either by lining them with concrete or building them above ground. But taxpayers are financing a policy that only treats the symptom, not the disease, and at great expense. There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle.

California’s spinach industry is now the financial victim of an outbreak it probably did not cause, and meanwhile, thousands of acres of other produce are still downstream from these lakes of E. coli-ridden cattle manure. So give the spinach growers a break, and direct your attention to the people in our agricultural community who just might be able to solve this deadly problem: the beef and dairy farmers.

Nina Planck is the author of “Real Food: What to Eat and Why.’’

* * * *

A cow's digestive system was perfectly designed for grass. As a cow grazes, grass goes into the first of its multiple stomachs, which acts as a sort of holding tank. Later, when the cow rests from grazing, the grass comes back into its mouth as a wad of cud. As the cow chews this -- a process that takes hours -- digestive juices in its mouth begin collecting all the rich nutrients from the grass. The roughage that remains goes through a complex system of stomachs that filter it of any impurities.

What cows eat might not seem like a very important detail to your average burger-and-a-shake consumer, but it mattered to God when He designed the internal organs of cows and other ruminant beasts, and it mattered to Him when He gave dietary laws to His children in Leviticus 11. "Whatsoever... cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat." Beasts that did not chew the cud were ruled unclean and forbidden. Which raises a good question to which I would really like to have an answer... do grain fed cattle chew the cud in the same way grazing cattle do?

Here in the Beehive kitchen, we have bought grass-fed beef and milk whenever possible, but for yet another reason: meat and milk from grass-fed cattle is rich in the essential fatty acids -- all those omegas -- that are now missing from grain fed cattle products. Free range cattle also produce purer milk and beef because they need fewer antibiotics... because they are healthier. Imagine that.

Bottom line: God knew what He was doing when He designed the earth and everything in it, and when we tinker with that, there's going to be a price to pay.

What can you do? Tell your local grocers that you want grass-fed beef, and keep asking until they stock it. Or find a grazing farm and buy your beef directly from it.

And plant some spinach in your back yard, maybe, because your body still needs the stuff in it!


gabbie said...

it tastes yucky!!!!!!!

(unless its strategically mixed into a salad and no one tells me its in there.)


Rob said...

Do you still eat spinach?  Here
is a poll

Leslie Noelani Laurio said...

I read this a few days ago, and I'm glad to see it posted here. An interesting twist on this that I read in one article seemed to be blaming natural fertilizers for e.coli, and the solution offered was to start using more synthetic "safe" fertilizers because organic isn't really all it's cracked up to be . . . very strange logic! Your solution makes a LOT more sense!

Owl of the Desert said...

That was really good! I had no idea! Table and I have been drinking more organic milk lately, simply because it lasts longer, but I had never thought about grass-fed vs. grain-fed vs. hay-fed, etc.

Does grass-fed cow milk last longer than your normal milk?

rachel tsunami said...

Oy Vey! I hadn't read the report about the spinach yet, and thanks for the good reminders of what I already knew! It's so easy to forget and become slack. This is *such* important information.

Nardo said...

How do you know if your ground beef or pot roast if from a grass-fed cow? Reason I ask is that we had pot roast for dinner last night (yum!) so I am curious.

coffeemamma said...

Factory farms ::shudder:: should never have been allowed to exist. Have you ever visited one? Yuck. And sad.