Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: September 28, 2006
* Tainted Spinach Raises Questions of Manure on Food Crops
* Spinach E. coli Contamination: Media Advisory
* Ohio Family Sues Over Tainted Spinach
* Closing the knowledge gap
* UGA scientists engineer root-knot nematode resistance
* Gene crops bloom in South Africa, says Monsanto
* California Moves to Preempt Biotech Bans
Tainted Spinach Raises Questions of Manure on Food Crops
_ Center for Global Food Issues, September 27, 2006, By Dennis T. Avery
Ten years after one of the country’s top food safety experts warned of danger from putting manure on food crops, Americans are still being devastated by manure-born pathogens. It doesn’t have to be.
Contaminated raw spinach has just killed at least one person, brought devastating kidney failure to 23, hospitalized more than 75, and sickened more than 150 people across America. The deadly spinach has been traced back to Natural Selections Foods, the largest grower of organic lettuce and spinach in the United States.
Organic rules bar the use of manufactured fertilizer on their crops, so organics use composted manure and other animal wastes on their fields. Animal manure is the ultimate source of the virulent E. coli O157:H7, which contaminated the spinach.
In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association quoted Dr. Robert Tauxe, head of foodborne illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, telling a medical conference that “‘Organic’ means a food is grown in animal manure. . . . We got rid of human waste in our food and water, and I think we’re going to have better control in the future of manure in our food and water.”
The Organic Trade Association responded that organic food was safe because farmers compost their manure. Dr. Tauxe responded that “Unfortunately, knowledge of the critical times and temperatures needed to make composted animal manures microbiologically safe is incomplete.”
Today, USDA organic rules allow manure to be applied after just 3 days of composting—right up to harvest time! Raw manure can be applied until 90 to120 days prior to harvest, under most state-level rules for all farms. But a recent University of Minnesota study found that produce grown with manure aged 6 to 12 months was still 19 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli than foods grown with manure aged more than a year.
Virtually no farmers age their manure for a year as too much of the vital nitrogen gasses off into the air during that time. Instead, most conventional farmers put their manure only on feed crops such as corn or on pasture. That may be why the Minnesota researchers found organic produce three times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli (7% of samples) than conventional (2%).
Organic activists love to claim that the deadly O157:H7 strain of E. coli is caused by “factory farming.” Not so. The USDA says it has found O157:H7 in every cattle herd it’s tested for it. A Swiss study last year found “no significant differences” in O157:H7 prevalence between organic and conventional dairy farms. Claims that “grain feeding” of cattle causes O157:H7 to flourish are also unsupported; various studies have found the opposite.
Washing the food can’t fully protect consumers either. Rutgers University has shown that lettuce (and likely spinach) can take up O157:H7 via its roots and harbor the pathogens inside the leaves! In short, there is no practical way to ensure full safety in the food crops fertilized with manure, composted or not.
Is it time to get the manure out of human food crops?
States could require that manure either be used on non-food crops or composted for at least a year. Annual questionnaires could identify the relatively few farms that compost with regular government inspections made.
This will raise howls of protest from the organic movement, which also protested the current weak manure rules. However, it’s now clear that using manure on food crops involves a serious public risk—especially with leafy produce like lettuce and spinach. The organic movement should want to ensure its customers health as urgently as do public health officials.
Eating no longer needs to be a deadly game of Russian roulette.
Spinach E. coli Contamination: Media Advisory
- Center for Global Food Issues, September 20, 2006
Contact: Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, 540-337-6354 or cell: 540-255-6378
Churchville, Virginia, September 19
The following is to correct misinformation regarding organic farming practices and food safety risks distributed to national media by organic food interest groups in an effort to deflect scrutiny in the wake of the recent and tragic outbreak of virulent E. coli that has killed at least one, hospitalized nearly 20, and sickened 114 individuals in 21 states.
Unless otherwise identified, all discussion points can be attributed to the Center for Global Food Issues’ director of research and education, Alex Avery.
1. Organic farming practices are not safer and may, in fact, be less safe than non-organic farming practices.
-- A University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2004 concluded that organic produce was six times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli. Salmonella was found on organic lettuce and organic green peppers, but not on any conventional produce. According to the researchers, the “prevalence of E. coli on certified organic produce” was “almost threefold higher than that on conventional”, but because of the comparatively smaller conventional food sample size, this difference could not be considered “statistically significant”. Yet of the total of 15 farms that had E. coli-positive samples, 13 were organic and only two were conventional. (Mukherjee, A, et al. J of Food Prot 67(5):894-900, 2004)
-- The most frequently contaminated product found in the Minnesota study was organic lettuce, with roughly one quarter of organic lettuce samples contaminated by E. coli. The levels of E. coli on organic lettuce and leafy greens was also higher than found on conventional samples.
-- Importantly, the research determined that fruits and vegetables were 19 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli if the manure was composted 6 to 12 months compared to produce fertilized with manure aged more than one year. Current organic manure handling regulations allow application of manure that has been composted for as little as three days right up to harvest time.
-- Some have suggested that manure use is “highly regulated” on organic farms but is not regulated on non-organic farms. This is incorrect. Every state has regulations against the use of raw (uncomposted) manure on crops consumed raw. However, all use of manure and manure-based compost by organic and non-organic farmers needs to be reexamined in light of the findings in the Minnesota study and applied to all.
Fortunately, this is essentially the point of “The Lettuce Safety Initiative” that has now been expanded to include spinach. This is a sound policy reaction to this and other E. coli contamination episodes of the past decade, including a multi-state outbreak from organic lettuce that sickened many in Connecticut and Illinois in June of 1996.
2. None of the organic brands from Natural Selections Foods LLC have been cleared of possible contamination by the FDA.
-- While Natural Selections Foods LLC has claimed that “manufacturing codes” from packaging retained by patients are all from non-organic spinach, this is totally inadequate information. The FDA and state authorities have package/UPC codes for a relatively small number of victims identified so far.
-- Why was Natural Selections posting reassuring (and conflicting) messages about the apparent safety of its organic products on its website only three days into a growing foodborne-illness outbreak for which no products had been cleared and the source of the contamination had yet to be identified?
3. Is E. coli O157:H7 a by-product of grain-based feeding or other “industrial” farming practices? No.
-- Studies have found E. coli O157:H7 in every single cattle herd tested by USDA researchers, including cattle raised on open pastures at low densities in remote areas. Genetic evidence indicates the O157:H7 strain arose thousands of years ago. Studies are conflicting as to whether grain-based feed increases the prevalence and shedding of O157:H7 strains of E. coli compared to grass feeding. Some have found higher rates with grass and hay feeding, others with grain.
4. This outbreak is due to practices used in organic farming While some outbreaks in the past have been thought to have occurred due to cross contamination during rinsing, current regulations – if followed – have been designed to address this hazard.
-- Ironically, the Minnesota research indicates that larger, certified operations are considerably less prone to bacterial contamination than smaller, more independent uncertified operations. E. coli contamination rates were roughly twice as high on un-certified organic farms compared to certified farms.
Ohio Family Sues Over Tainted Spinach
- FoxNews.com, September 26, 2006
TOLEDO, Ohio — Five family members who said they were sickened after eating fresh spinach filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a processing company investigators are examining in their search for the source of the tainted greens.
The lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeks at least $100,000 in damages from Natural Selection Foods LLC.
Roger Drummond and Laura Snider, of Bowling Green, said they and their three children became ill in late August and early September after eating packages of organic spinach salad.
The family suffered from diarrhea, cramping and headaches, the lawsuit said. The youngest, 1-year-old Amrita Drummond, was hospitalized and tests showed that she was suffering from a highly virulent strain of E. coli, according to the lawsuit.
She suffered permanent kidney damage and will require lifelong care, said attorney David Zoll.
A message seeking comment was left with the company Tuesday, but was not immediately returned.
Health officials tracking the source of the E. coli outbreak from spinach has sickened at least 175 people nationwide are focusing on Natural Selection Foods LLC, which officials believe packaged the tainted spinach for Dole and dozens of other brands. They're also looking specifically at nine farms in three California counties that supplied the company with leafy greens.
Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., has recalled more than 30 brands, including Dole, President's Choice, Ready Pac, Trader Joe's, Nature's Basket and Premium Fresh.
Closing the knowledge gap
FAO Press Release, 27.sep.06
Rome – Over 100 of the world’s poorest countries will now be able to access leading food and agriculture journals for little or no cost with the launch of the second phase of the Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA) initiative, FAO announced today.
AGORA is a successful public-private partnership between FAO, 37 of the world’s leading science publishers and other key partners including the World Health Organization and Cornell University. Introduced in 2003 and providing access to 69 low-income countries, AGORA today expands to include universities, colleges, research institutes and government ministries as well as non-governmental organizations in an additional 37 lower-middle-income countries.
AGORA responds to the needs of thousands of students, researchers and academics in poorer countries, who continue to face challenges accessing up-to-date information which is vital to their work.
“We have seen from the first phase of this initiative that there is increasing demand for access to vital information by poorer countries. In less than three years, AGORA has already helped bridge the knowledge gap by providing 850 institutions access to over 900 journals in the areas of agriculture and related subjects,” notes Anton Mangstl, Director of FAO’s Library and Documentation Systems Division.
Under the second phase of AGORA launched today, 37 countries with a per capita GNP of between US$ 1000 and US$ 3000 will be eligible. Institutions wishing to register will have a three-month free trial period before they are asked to pay an annual subscription of US$ 1000. FAO will invest all subscription income into local training initiatives to help increase awareness and usage of AGORA amongst librarians and scientists.
“AGORA was an ambitious initiative from the beginning, but thanks to a very effective partnership between publishers and FAO we have made incredible headway with new institutions registering to join everyday,” said AGORA Publishing Coordinator, Maurice Long of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers.
AGORA is making an important contribution to the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by providing essential information to improve the livelihoods of those who need it most.
UGA scientists engineer root-knot nematode resistance
- University of Georgia, September 27, 2006
University of Georgia professor Richard Hussey has spent 20 years studying a worm-shaped parasite too small to see without a microscope. His discovery is vastly bigger. Hussey and his research team have found a way to halt the damage caused by one of the world's most destructive groups of plant pathogens.
Root-knot nematodes are the most economically important group of plant-parasitic nematodes worldwide, said Hussey, a distinguished research professor in plant pathology at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
They attack nearly every food and fiber crop grown, about 2,000 plant species in all.
The nematode invades plant roots, and by feeding on the roots' cells, they cause the roots to grow large galls, or knots, damaging the crop and reducing its yields.
Working with assistant research scientist Guozhong Huang and research technician Rex Allen, Hussey discovered how to make plants resistant to root-knot nematode infection.
Eric Davis at North Carolina State University and Thomas Baum at Iowa State University also collaborated on the research.
The discovery "has the potential to revolutionize root-knot resistance in all crops," Hussey said.
The most cost-effective and sustainable management tactic for preventing root-knot nematode damage and reducing growers' losses, he said, is to develop resistant plants that prevent the nematode from feeding on the roots. Because root-knot nematode resistance doesn't come naturally in most crops, Hussey's group bioengineered their own.
The results of the study were published Sept. 26 in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Four common root-knot nematode species account for 95 percent of all infestations in agricultural land. By discovering a root-knot nematode parasitism gene that's essential for the nematode to infect crops, the scientists have developed a resistance gene effective against all four species.
Using a technique called RNA interference, the researchers have effectively turned the nematode's biology against itself. They genetically modified Arabidopsis, a model plant, to produce double-stranded RNA to knock out the specific parasitism gene in the nematode when it feeds on the plant roots.
This knocked out the parasitism gene in the nematode and disrupted its ability to infect plants.
"No natural root-knot resistance gene has this effective range of root-knot nematode resistance," Hussey said.
The researchers' efforts have been directed primarily at understanding the molecular tools the nematode uses to infect plants. This is a prerequisite for bioengineering durable resistance to these nematodes in crop plants.
Through this research, they've discovered the parasitism genes that make a nematode a plant parasite so it can attack and feed on crops, Huang said.
"Our results of in-plant RNA interference silencing of a parasitism gene in root-knot nematodes provides a way to develop crops with broad resistance to this destructive pathogen," Hussey said. "Equally important, our approach makes available a strategy for developing root-knot-nematode-resistant crops for which natural resistance genes do not exist."
Gene crops bloom in South Africa, says Monsanto
- Reuters, Sep 27, 2006
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The area under genetically modified crops in South Africa rose over the past season to 609,000 hectares from 515,000 the previous year, U.S. biotech giant Monsanto said on Wednesday.
That included soybeans, cotton and maize crops, though maize made up the largest chunk at 500,000 ha, Monsanto said in a statement.
GMO seeds had been sold out ahead of the new 2006/07 season, the agricultural products provider said.
"Thousands of small-scale farmers in South Africa are buying GM maize and cotton seed ... Emergent farmers on average claim a yield increase of 42.6 percent with GM maize compared to conventional maize," it said.
While many African countries have banned GMOs, South Africa has embraced them as a means of ensuring food security.
California Moves to Preempt Biotech Bans
- The Heartland Institute, By James M. Taylor, October 1, 2006
The California legislature is considering a bill sponsored by state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) preempting individual counties from banning the growing of genetically enhanced crops.
The bill was introduced in 2005 and was approved by the California Assembly's Agriculture Committee in June 2006. It passed the Assembly on August 24 by a bipartisan 46-19 vote and is now being considered by the state Senate.
Four California counties already have adopted local bans on biotech crops. Although those counties do not produce many crops, state legislators fear a patchwork of confusing regulations if many more counties follow suit.
Farmers Support Biotech
"We are concerned that if we decide county by county that we can't use biotechnology, it'll really tie our hands," Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs at the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the San Francisco Chronicle for a July 29 article. "California farmers will miss a great opportunity."
The Farm Bureau is particularly concerned because, as noted in the Chronicle article, "Genetically enhanced seeds are often associated with increased crop productivity, better-looking foods, and crop resilience."
Eight states--Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia--have passed laws preempting local biotechnology bans.
County Bans Politically Motivated
"There is no reason other than anti-technology prejudice for a political jurisdiction to ban bioengineered crops or food," said Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. "The proposed California legislation simply preserves the right of farmers and consumers to have access to a crop technology that millions of people around the world have found to be useful.
"From a constitutional perspective, counties and cities have no independent legal authority aside from that which state government grants to them, so there is no question that the California legislature has the legitimate power to preempt these silly and ill-conceived bans," Conko added.
Biotech Safe: State Committee
A recent analysis by the California Assembly Committee on Agriculture quashed environmental activists' allegations that genetically enhanced foods pose environmental or human health dangers.
"Biotechnology seed ... already receives much greater scrutiny than any other conventional agriculture product," the analysis observed. "In total, the regulatory scheme that governs the safe use of biotechnology comprises between 10 and 15 years of governmental research and oversight."
"SB 1056 would ensure consistency of regulation throughout the state and obviate the need for farmers to navigate a county-by-county patchwork of restrictions and requirements," said Henry Miller, a scientist at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "The bill has the support of virtually all major agricultural organizations, including the California Farm Bureau, Western United Dairymen, Western Growers Association, the Wine Institute, and more."
Bans Mean More Pesticides
Miller continued, "Outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of modern biotechnology ensures the increased use of chemical pesticides, and the persistence of these chemicals in ground and surface water, and it will result in increased occupational exposures. By contrast, the technology makes it possible to remove dangerous allergens from wheat, peanuts, milk, and other commonly allergenic foods.
"There is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem" as a result of biotech, Miller observed. "There is a broad consensus among scientists that gene-splicing techniques are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier ones, and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk."