Last summer's outbreak of E. coli contamination in packaged spinach that killed at least three people and sickened more than 200 others has now been confirmed to have come from a 50-acre organic farm in California's San Benito County. According to the Associated Press, at a legislative hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, California Department of Health Services officials said that "investigators identified the grower who was farming that plot, which was in the second year of a three-year transition to organic production."
At the time, many observers speculated that such was probably the case, given that organic farmers may not use synthetic fertilizers and are therefore the primary users of animal manure on food crops. Still, that was not at all clear, given that the contamination could not be definitively traced to spinach labeled as organic. Now, however, we know that the farm had been using organic practices for two years, but needed one additional year before its produce could be certified as organic.
The organic industry poo-pooed the suggestion that the contamination arose on an organic farm, insisting that such a thing could only have happened on a big, conventional, "factory farm". The fact of the matter is, however, that, while microbial contamination will likely always be with us, so-called factory farms tend to be cleaner, not dirtier, than anachronistic organic farms. Having been on lots of farms, organic and conventional, on all six inhabited continents, I am much more willing to trust my family's health to the products of a typical factory farm than a typical organic one.
The California Department of Health Services plans not to identify the farm until the release of its report on the E. coli outbreak in a few weeks. However, the Hollister, California Free Lance reported yesterday that "Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who is representing 90 plaintiffs in a suit related to the E. coli outbreak, added Salinas [California] grower Mission Organics to the defendants in his lawsuit on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Marler told the Free Lance he has known since November that the E. coli contamination occurred on land farmed by Mission Organics and leased from Paicines Ranch, and that the state agency's investigation only confirmed that."
Thanks to Alex Avery at the Hudson Center for Global Food Issues for the tip.