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Let Them Eat Cowpies

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E. coli sticks to spinach leaves the way our Commander in Chief clings to his cadre of corrupt and incompetent cronies. You can wash them till the cows come home but they're still gonna be tainted.

Everyone's leery of leafy greens these days, particularly those plucked from central California's fecund but fatally fecal farmlands. Thanks to repeated E. coli outbreaks, the Region-Formerly-Known-as-the-Nation's-Salad-Bowl has been rebranded America's Petri dish.

And that's bad for business. Because a product that has the potential to give you bloody diarrhea or even kill you has--let's be honest--a somewhat limited shelf appeal.

Which is why it was so wonderful to see Paul Krugman taint the anti-regulatory right with that same bacteria-laden brush in his New York Times op-ed column yesterday, calling them "E. coli Conservatives."

Credit for this Rove-worthy, Luntzlike bit of re-branding goes to historian Rick Perlstein, who's been flogging the FDA's follies on his blog, Campaign for America's Future.

We liberals are perpetually puzzled by the way that conservatives assess every threat to our health and safety and the future of our planet through corporate-colored glasses. After all, as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation (and pal to Bonny Prince Charles, who's a royal eco-geek,) noted in another fine New York Times op ed, "Has Politics Contaminated the Food Supply?": Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you still have to eat.

To which I would only add, crunchy granola greenmarket goers may consume more spinach per capita than chickenwing-chomping wingnuts, but E. coli is a non partisan poison. Consider the case of 83-year-old Betty Howard of Richland, Wash., who succumbed to E. coli-induced heart failure this February after battling the deadly bacteria in a rehab facility for five months.

Howard's grieving family sent a letter to State Senator Dean Flores, the Central California Democrat who's introduced legislation to toughen standards for his state's greens growers, which read (somewhat ungrammatically) in part: Betty Howard and most of the Howard family are Republican's. She would have, and we do also, wholeheartedly support your efforts here today. Because if my mother were here today she would tell you this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It a not a government verses grower issue. The issue is very simple: It is in the best interest of the 300 million Americans and making the nation's food supply safer.

It would also be in our best interests for the MSM to stop their pseudo-sleuthing in the Salinas spinach fields and set foot in the feedlots--the actual source of this especially virulent strain of E. coli. Guess they just don't want to step in it.

But as Michael Pollan, Nina Planck, Marion Nestle, and all us grass-fed grassroots activists are telling anyone who'll listen, E. coli 0157:H7 is an unintended by-product of industrial agriculture's dubious practice of feeding cows grain instead of grass. As Nestle told WYNC's Brian Lehrer:

"E. coli is a normal inhabitant of every animal's digestive tract, including ours, but this is a special form of E. coli that picked up a toxin from a different form of bacteria called shigella, and it's a normal inhabitant of the animal intestinal tract if, and only if, animals are fed corn rather than grass, which changes the acidity of their digestive tracts...

...it may have been around forever, but it only started causing problems in the early 1980's when we started having these big confinement animal facilities...it's one of these newly emergent pathogenic bacterial species that we have to worry about and in this case it's a result of the kind of farming practices that we do..."

The USDA does recognize the hazard that E. coli-contaminated CAFO manure lagoons pose to our food chain, and that's why they--i.e., we the people--pay 75% of the costs feedlot farmers incur in order to make their manure lagoons watertight.

Meanwhile, Kansas State University researchers are testing a vaccine that could reduce the presence of E. coli O157 in feedlot cattle, according to Agriculture Online.

But the solution to this manmade problem lies not in lining the feedlot lagoons with concrete, or creating new vaccines, according to Planck: "There remains only one long-term remedy, and it's still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle."

Maybe if more Americans understood that the feedlots are breeding grounds for deadly disease, they'd be willing to cut back on the burgers and--for those who can afford it, not to mention find it--even pay a premium for pasture-raised meats, whose availability is growing as more and more folks realize that grass-fed's the way to go.

But it's hard to get the word out when the media beyond the blogosphere is doing such a lousy job of covering this story. How many people know, for instance, that Central California farmers irrigate their fields with treated sewage effluent? Frank Pecarich, a retired USDA soil scientist who writes for California Progress Report has been trying to spread the word about sewage-sprayed-spinach for months. Pecarich cites the testimony provided at last week's FDA hearing in Oakland by Dr. Michael Lynch, a doctor for the Foodborne and Diarrheal Disease Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

There is a definite time correlation between the initiation of Monterey County's use of treated sewage water as an irrigation source and the huge increase in pathogen outbreaks with Salinas Valley vegetables. About 384 outbreaks linked to produce occurred in the six years between 1998 and 2004, which is about twice the 190 that happened in the 24 years from 1973 to 1997.

So, as Pecarich points out, the number of pathogen outbreaks jumped 200% over the previous 24 years when Monterey County launched its sewage treated water irrigation program on 12,000 acres of vegetables.

Another outbreak is all but inevitable, according to experts. What a great way to organically grow the anti-agribiz grassroots! So, thanks, all you E. coli Conservatives. You've dug yourselves into a hole on this one, and it looks like you're determined to keep digging all the way to China.