Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Real Story Behind Contaminated Produce & "Ask Amy" on "Humane" Farming

The FDA recently recalled cantaloupes believed to contain the bacteria Listeria (
This incident reminds me of other past recalls involving fruits and vegetables (spinach and peanuts, for instance). Before learning more about factory farms, I just assumed that produce could magically develop bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Now I know that fruits and vegetables are contaminated by one or more of the following: farm run-off (from animal waste that's not disposed of properly or is in such massive amounts that it's nearly impossible to contain) that taints the plants and the soil, and/or
cross-contamination (produce being handled or processed in facilities that also process animal products -- many of which harbor dangerous bacteria).  

Below is an excerpt from a Colorado State article that expands on this idea:
"Fresh fruits and vegetables once were thought to be relatively free of disease-producing pathogens. Recently, however, outbreaks of food-borne illness linked to fruits and vegetables have become more common. These outbreaks come from produce grown both in the United States and in other countries.

Changes in microorganisms have undoubtedly contributed to this increase, as have changes in growing, harvesting, distribution, processing and consumption practices. Listeria monocytogenes, Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus cereus are naturally present in some soils. Their presence on fresh produce is not uncommon. Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Vibrio cholerae, parasites and viruses can contaminate produce through raw or improperly composted manure, irrigation water containing untreated sewage or manure, and contaminated wash water. Contact with mammals, reptiles, fowl, Insects and unpasteurized animal products are other sources of contamination.

Contaminated surfaces, including human hands that come in contact with whole or cut produce, represent potential points of cross-contamination throughout the food system -- growing, harvesting, packing, processing, shipping and preparing produce for consumption. Washing produce with plain water or water containing 1 to 3 teaspoons of chlorine bleach per gallon, followed by rinsing with plain water, can reduce the number of pathogens and other microorganisms. However, neither method can be relied upon to totally eliminate pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7. Careful control of potential points of contamination from production to consumption is essential."

From the article "Preventing E. coli From Garden To Plate" by J.G. Davis and P. Kendall, 4/05, Colorado State University

Ask Amy
Q: What do you think about "humane" farming?
A: "Humane" farming advocates, like author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), agree that factory farming practices are cruel and harmful to humans and the environment, as well. But instead of supporting a plant-based diet, they believe that it's okay to consume animals that are "humanely" farmed -- grass-fed beef, cage-free chickens, free-range turkeys, for example. I have read Michael Pollan's book and talked with supporters of "humane" farming, but I continue to disagree with this practice for two reasons:
1. Who is defining and regulating "humane" farming? Unless I see these farms and their practices with my own eyes, I have no way of knowing that they are truly treating animals humanely.
Products can be labeled "humane" or "free-range" and these can mean very little. In the case of "free-range" poultry, this can simply mean there's a door inside the barn through which the animals could technically access the outdoors. But whether this happens or not (and for how many minutes per day) is at the discretion of the farmers.
2. Whether animals are farmed humanely or inhumanely, the bottom-line is that they will be slaughtered for human use, and their lives will be cut significantly short. Plus, there are few "humane" farms that have the means to slaughter animals on the premises. This means that these poor animals are subjected to the same stressful and harsh transportation conditions as factory-farm animals. And they, too, will likely be slaughtered in a large slaughterhouse whose practices can be entirely inhumane, as evidenced by numerous undercover investigations.

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