Another Salmonella-Tomato Post

I am still getting a lot of hits on my last post on this subject, but I am concerned that there is some misunderstanding about the raw manure-salmonella connection. I have at least one commenter note that he feels “safe” because he didn’t use any manure in his garden.

I commented back that gardeners can and should use manure in their gardens–but they should only use composted manure on crops already in the field. If you want to use raw manure, it’s better to spread it in the fall or very early spring to give it time to mellow. Raw manure can burn plants with the excess nitrogen, and it can contaminate crops if there are pathogens in it.

But manure is one of nature’s very best fertilizers–it’s the cycle of life, folks, and broken-down plant and animal debris (including sh*t) is what makes this planet tick. All those little soil microbes and earthworms are here to help that breaking down process–making the nutrients in waste and decaying matter available to grow more life (and veggies!).

Think of using manure on your crops like using a distinfectant in your kitchen. Not exactly the same–but the idea is that you do not want it directly on your food, and you want to exercise care in the use of it. Just because eating or drinking bleach or other disinfectants can make you sick doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them–only that you should use them wisely.

But many of the salmonella, e. coli, and other food-borne illness outbreaks aren’t even caused by farmers directly applying raw manure to their fields. They’re caused by contaminated raw manure being tracked into fields by domesticated or wild animals or even on the boots of farmers or fieldworkers or by contaminated raw manure getting into the irrigation supply.

The theory about the 2006 outbreak in spinach was that the contaminated manure was tracked into the fields by wild pigs that broke into a feedlot. The pigs didn’t have the pathogen–the cows did. But the pigs got the contaminated cow poop on their hooves and tracked it into the spinach fields and/or irrigation supply.

One of the best things we can do to control contamination on produce is to practice better and safer ways of raising animals for food. If we’re going to eat meat, we need to give these animals more room, better care, and a more natural diet so that they’re not always getting sick and then making us sick when their brains or poop get mixed up with our food supply because we’re doing it on such a huge scale we can’t possibly check it all. I know it may be un-American to suggest we get smaller and less efficient, but sometimes smaller and less efficient is safer and healthier.

(I would also argue that small farms are more efficient–but the marketing end is what makes them seem less so–markets are generally owned and operated by those who buy big and sell big and don’t want to deal with the little guys.)

I spoke with a woman at a farmers market conference last spring who allowed her chickens to roam in her asparagus patch eating bugs and fertilizing the asparagus at the same time. She picked and washed and ate the asparagus and never became ill.

Though I would not recommend letting chickens or other livestock into the garden near or during harvest time, this woman probably never got sick because she took good care of her chickens, allowed them a good diet and plenty of exercise, and they didn’t have salmonella (this is why I’m skeptical of the chicken advertised as being fed a “vegetarian diet” like that’s somehow better and safer–chickens are not vegetarians!).

The reason for all the “cook thoroughly” warning labels on our food nowadays is that the USDA knows that the food supply is dirty, and they know there’s not much they can do about it except tell us to be really careful eating that dangerous stuff called “food.”

I do not believe that the government is going to be especially effective in cleaning up our food supply–the meat packing industry is getting to be so powerful and consolidated that most legislation would trickle off their backs like so much water off a duck’s–they can afford to just pay the fine or pay the inspector to look the other way.

Typically the legislation that uninformed folks think will make their food supply safer just ends up putting unnecessary burdens on the backs of the little guys who are already making a healthier, safer product, and often forces them out of the business.

So it’s really up to consumers to make smarter choices and ask informed questions of those who grow and sell food. It’s a lot easier to get straight answers in a timely fashion from those who are direct-marketing to you through a CSA or farmers market or roadside stand.

A lot of people will pay extra for the organic label on their food because they believe it’s a safer, healthier product. But “organic” has become industrial–it is done on the same large scale as conventional crops. So, the safer, healthier bet is more likely from your neighbor’s backyard or your local farmers market.


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