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Spinach Isn’t the Culprit

The E. coli breakout that was traced back to spinach is the worst thing to happen to vegetarians in a long time, but not for the obvious reason. Because non-vegetarians are walking around saying, "See what happens when you eat vegetables? I’ll stick with my meat and potatoes–nobody’s dyin’ from the traditional American diet . . . what God intended us to eat."

I’ve been talking about the real culprit–the beef and dairy industry–and, as usual, I’ve been called a "conspiracy theorist."

Enter Nina Planck, author of REAL FOOD: What to Eat and Why, who writes of the origins of the recent E. coli infections in today’s New York Times in an Op-ed called Leafy Green Sewage.

The origin of the virulent strain of E. coli that killed one person and sickened over 100 others, (which goes by the catchy name No. O157), is the poop that comes from cows that aren’t fed their natural diets, but are instead fed grain. Most cattle in this country, as the great majority are "produced" and "processed" in factory farms, are fed a diet of grain, laced with antibiotics and hormones. This is done because it is cost effective; the "farmers" want to maximize profit.

There’s a simple solution, though, and it would cost money. I’m willing to be my net worth that "farmers" find oodles of reasons why implementing it isn’t a good idea.

As Planck writes, "When cows are switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days [before slaughter], O157 declined 1,000 fold." She goes on to explain that intensive farms produce enormous amounts of contaminated waste, and that the USDA "pays 75% of the cost for a confinement cattle farmer to make manure pits watertight."

Let’s deconstruct:

  • Factory farming feeds all animals (I believe all is correct), regardless of their natural diets, some type of corn-based grain product. (The most hilarious line in Michael Pollan’s book, THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: A Natural History of Four Meals, is that because of all of the corn-based products we eat, Americans are really "corn chips with legs.")
  • Intensive cattle farms, and the grain they use, are subsidized by the federal government.
  • They are permitted to produce noxious wastes and then paid to attempt to contain them (ask folks in North Carolina and Arkansas how that system is working for their air and water quality).
  • Water and air get contaminated anyway.
  • People like spinach producers get the blame.

In other words, factory farmers get paid to put the health of their customers at risk, and to harm the environment. That’s a great system if you’re a cattle farmer and you have no conscience. Once again, I come back to the issue of subsidies and how outrageously unfair and unhealthy they are. MY TAX DOLLARS contribute to this system and make it nearly impossible for the traditional farmer who tries to do the right thing by the animals, the environment, and the end user, to compete.

If you buy meat that has been subsidized, you actually pay for it twice: the first time is involuntary, through taxation, and the second is voluntary, by purchasing the product you just subsidized.

If it all sounds like too much, here’s a step in the right direction (which by no means will prevent you from ever purchasing contaminated food): shop at Whole Foods or from local markets if you have visited the farms that the food comes from–including the animal operations. And if they don’t allow visitors, you shouldn’t buy anything from them.

And if you think you can’t because it’s too expensive, stop smoking, stop getting coffee from Starbucks, stop drinking alcohol, rent movies instead of going to the movies, eat out less, and do whatever else you need to do to free up some money in your budget for cleaner food.

What could be more important?

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