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Big ag and contamination

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) seemed to react with a bit too much caution in October, when it warned U.S. consumers not to eat any romaine lettuce, at all, from anywhere, because of the possibility of contamination.

The outbreak of E. Coli that triggered the recall sickened about 40 people in 12 states. A couple weeks later, the CDC updated its warning with the information that the contaminated lettuces came from California’s Central Valley region, and that if romaine was labeled with an origin different, it was safe to eat.

Even before that update, some small farms alerted media outlets that their organic romaine was not part of an industrial farming operation, and was safe to eat. People who purchased locally grown romaine at farmers’ markets should have been secure in the knowledge that they were buying untainted lettuce.

The other notable food recall that took place just before Thanksgiving involved ground beef. Ultimately the recall covered 12 million pounds of ground beef responsible for causing salmonella, poisoning in 246 people, with 56 of those people requiring hospitalization.

The packed beef contained the United States Department of Agriculture inspection number EST. 267, and was packaged between July 26 and September 7. USDA inspectors were concerned that some packages remained in consumers’ freezers.

Consumer Reports indicates that while E. Coli is more commonly found in conventional beef, rates of salmonella are similar for conventional, grass-fed and organic beef. Regardless, beef must be cooked thoroughly to be safe.

The two recalls once again sparked discussion about whether industrial or factory farming is really beneficial to the societies they serve, or whether the county should be moving toward incentivizing more small-scale farming operations.

There is general agreement that industrial, or factory farms, are more efficient, and can generally offer consumers lower prices for meat and produce. As an article in Forbes magazine put it, (tinyurl.com/yawytw6d), “Factory farms are one of the biggest reasons why it’s possible to consume meat every day if one wants.” That’s clearly a convenience many people do not want to give up. But the list of grievances against industrial farms that raise both meat and produce is extensive.

The website Beyond Factory Farming has a long list of complaints against industrial agricultural operations, including how they deal with excessive amounts of manure (tinyurl.com/ydbc4b8x). In a comparison of large and small operations a post on the website reads, “sustainable farms only raise what the land is capable of handling. Farmers use manure or composted manure as fertilizer for crops, which reduces or eliminates the need for commercial fertilizers and chemicals.” In larger operations, “industrial livestock production concentrates large numbers of animals in one area. As a result, there is too much manure concentrated in one area for the land to handle. Manure is stored in large holding pits, lagoons, or stock piled. Due to high transportation costs, manure is often over-applied to fields close to the operation… Manure storage emits gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane. These gases can cause noxious odors, as well as a suite of health problems.”

In the case of vegetables, one of the complaints against large operations is that produce must be shipped long distances to take advantage of growing large amounts of single crops. In most regions, commercial crops must be shipped to central distribution points to be processed and shipped to the public. This means that commercial produced must often be shipped thousands of miles over days, while locally grown produce may be shipped only tens of miles, and often sold on the same day it was harvested.

There is no doubt that interest in food from smaller operations is growing. But the current administration in Washington seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Officials of the Trump Administration are moving to delay and rollback regulations meant to safeguard the nation’s food supply.

A recent article on the website Food Safety News            (tinyurl.com/ycegf2xx) reads, “The fact is, the tired argument made by Trump’s minions, that food safety and other environmental rules are too costly, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The White House’s own analysis shows that environmental safeguards and other commonsense rules deliver a good return on the investment in our future, with produce safety rules yielding an estimated $900 million dollars in benefits from the avoidance of food-borne illness, at a substantially lower cost.”

Like many issues of sustainability, an unbiased judgment of small-scale versus large-scale farming depends on viewing both the costs of production and the external cost to society of both types of farming. It seems that growing numbers of the public are coming to understand that, and perhaps the political class will follow.

 

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