Tainted spinach another sign of sick food, farm system

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The deadly E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach should make us rethink our farming practices and reinvigorate our regulatory system.

Food-borne outbreaks are due, in part, to corporate agribusiness practices, according to infectious disease specialists like Professor Lee Riley at the University of California-Berkeley.

"We don't see this disease in India, Africa, China. We only see it in highly technologically advanced countries, and the reason is because of this highly centralized food-processing system," Riley recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.

For instance, livestock that are force-fed grain in confinement have up to 300 times more pathogenic bacteria in their guts as compared to grass-fed cattle, according to researchers from Cornell University. Other studies have found similar results.

California, which boasts of its new status as the No. 1 dairy state, is awash in factory-farm manure. This manure enters the food chain when it runs off into channels designed to irrigate vegetables or when it blows onto nearby produce fields.

Unfortunately, proper manure disposal rarely occurs in large-scale livestock confinement operations. The upshot is a nightmarish landscape of leaking lagoons, tainted wells, fish kills, debilitated farmworkers and poisoned food.

Food safety began to deteriorate in the United States under President Clinton. Public oversight shifted to ineffectual, feel-good self-policing programs. Under President Bush, this deregulation of our food and farm system has only accelerated.

Recent budget and staff cuts at the federal level have left the majority of food-safety inspection and enforcement in the hands of city, county and state agencies. Ironically, the Bush administration is now trying to railroad through Congress the National Uniformity for Food Act, which would take away this local control over food safety and labeling.

Whether it is bacteria lurking in salad greens, genetically contaminated long-grain rice or a T-bone steak with mad cow, American consumers have to run a gauntlet before sitting down to dinner.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture deserve a reminder that their public mandate is to safeguard our nation's farming system - not to guarantee the profits of agribusiness.

When consumers in more than 20 states are affected from spinach grown in just one California county, it's time to recognize that we need sustainable, small-scale agriculture, as well as tough regulations on producers.

Our agricultural system deserves a thorough democratic cleansing with consumer right-to-know labeling, tough antitrust action, corporate liability measures and serious incentives for viable alternatives.

We must safeguard our food supply not just from terrorists, but from dangerous farming practices.

John E. Peck is executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a grassroots organization in Madison, Wis.