A Good Weekend for Pesticides

by Russ Roberts on September 18, 2006

in Food and Drink, Health

The spinach e-coli outbreak comes from organic spinach. The Washington Post reports:

Federal health officials last night linked a deadly E. coli outbreak in
bagged spinach products to a California farm company that sells organic
produce in 74 percent of the country’s grocery stores.

My memory is that un-natural produce, the produce that is grown with pesticides has a lower chance of carrying e-coli. Is this true? Please post some evidence on this issue in the comments.

And on the opposite page comes this pro-pesticide story:

The World Health Organization reversed a 30-year-old policy yesterday
and declared its support for indoor use of the pesticide DDT to control
mosquitoes in regions where malaria is a major health problem.

This is bad news for mosquitos and good news for human beings:

About 1 million people die each year of malaria, most of them African children under age 5.

WHO expects opposition to the policy change from some environmental groups. Kochi appealed directly to them in his announcement.

am here today to ask you, please help save African babies as you are
helping to save the environment. African babies do not have a powerful
movement . . . to champion their well-being," he said.

Kochi is the head of the malaria division of WHO, the World Health Organization.

Let the spraying begin.

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Morgan September 18, 2006 at 11:10 am


I'll look for evidence later today (assuming no one else has provided it), but my recall is that the statement "un-natural produce, the produce that is grown with pesticides has a lower chance of carrying e-coli", while true, is true because natural produce is more likely to have been grown using animal waste (which is the usual source for e-coli – both on vegetables and in ground beef) as fertilizer.

If I'm right, a better title might be "Hooray for petrochemical-derived fertilizers!"

back40 September 18, 2006 at 12:24 pm

That is an issue Morgan, but the use of manure is not restricted to organic systems. It is more prevalent in organic production though since they have fewer options.

Still, it is the handling and packaging of the food rather than its production method that is the useful focus of concern. Somebody screwed up. There are some animals, such as farm workers, that can't (yet?) be eliminated from the food chain, and they can spread infection. People are vectors too. Wash your hands!

John Thacker September 18, 2006 at 2:07 pm

I believe that the company whose spinach seems to be contaminated is claiming that only their non-organic spinach has been found contaminated so far.

The FDA is in ultra-cautious mode (now *there*'s a shock) saying that consumers shouldn't rely on it only being one company's spinach or just their non-organic spinach.

John Thacker September 18, 2006 at 2:09 pm

The FDA has apparently cited the valley in CA where the spinach before, warning about the water getting contaminated with E. Coli:


Matthew September 18, 2006 at 4:47 pm

E. coli has only beeen found in non-organic spinach so far. But this latest outbreak brings to light a possibility that is all too easily capitalized on by big agribusiness and its PR people, front groups, etc. What if the E. coli poisonings had been traced back to organic spinach? Would that prove that organic produce is more susceptible to deadly strains of viruses? The answer is no, but the negative buzz just from that suggestion does plenty of damage to the organic movement and to consumers who are misled by such claims.

The most popular junk theories are derivative versions of the following: ”Organic farmers rely more heavily on natural manure products, so their crops are more likely to carry deadly strains of E. coli.” Not so. Both conventional AND organic farmers use manure as a part of regular fertilization programs. Certified organic farmers, however, must maintain a farm plan detailing the methods used to build soil fertility, including the application of manure, as mandated by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program rule of December 2000. All manure must be composted as well.

Morgan September 18, 2006 at 11:48 pm

Well, good intentions and all that, sorry I'm late, and with only a single link:


[Mukherjee A, Speh D, Dyck E, et al. Preharvest evaluation of coliforms, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in organic and conventional produce grown by Minnesota farmers. J Food Prot 2004;67(5):894-900]

A link to the study abstract is at the end of the story.

Apparently, organic produce *is* more likely to carry e-coli, though the authors downplay the finding by focusing on the fact that none of their samples were contaminated with pathogenic strains.

Still, until I learn otherwise, I have to assume that pathogenic strains occur randomly with respect to type of farm, which means that a greater chance of e-coli means a greater chance of pathogenic e-coli.

Manure may be used in all farming, but this study indicates that it is used less, or more responsibly, in the green revolution version.

RWP September 20, 2006 at 4:53 am

Come on the big story here is the DTT reversal. That is such a win for humanity it is not even comparable to the e coli story. Finally, humanity wins one.

Pamela September 20, 2006 at 1:01 pm

Hello. Thanks to Tim Worstall for leading me to your site. We are lobbyists for agricultural concerns and you have no idea how this is shaking up the industry. The true concern out there is not the manure used for fertilizer – it is that the ground water may have been contaminated. That contamination may have come from an (undetected) leak in a manure lagoon. Tracking ground water contamination is just about an art form and I would not be at all surprised if they NEVER find the source, be it ground water or not.

The fallout for the animal husbandry industry is this: current manure-handling regs come under EPA's Clean Water/Air statutes. However, some tort lawyers are bringing lawsuits under CERCLA – the Superfund regs (remember Love Canal?) that allows for penalties far greater. CERCLA never specifies animal waste as a hazardous substance and there is a move to get Congress to clarify its intent that animal waste should not be included under CERCLA but right now there's no indication how that will go.

About 16 dairy farmers were sued in Waco TX under CERCLA. The plaintiffs lost, but about 6 farmers went under due to the legal bills.

So. If FDA does determine the cause of the outbreak is ground water contamination, it is highly unlikely Congress will pass anything regarding CERCLA clarification, farmers will be faced with huge liabilites and many will simply quit before they are bankrupted.

As to your question whether or not organically grown produce carries a greater risk of contamination than produce grown conventionally; as far as we know, no studies have been done. If memory serves, however, to maintain organic certification, the producer must halt fertilization w/manure at least 60 days prior to harvest. In theory, at least, contaminating organisms become part of the ecological process themselves and degrade, die or become food for other organisms. Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea that organically produced food is somehow healthier for me. However, there is an argument to be made for it in terms of sustainable agriculture.

Ok, I'll shut up now!

Charlie (Colorado) September 21, 2006 at 9:15 pm

Let's be a little careful with terminology here, too. E. coli isn't a pest, like an insect, that would be killed by DDT, and it's not a virus, it's a bacterium. DDT is important in preventing malaria not because it kills the pathogen, but because it kills the mosquitos that spread the pathogen.

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