Cows, Spinach, and E-coli

This is a little off topic, but I was really affected by this op-ed piece from the New York Times.

The E-Coli that has put us all off spinach for the last couple weeks apparently comes from cow manure of grain-fed cows.  The solution, Nina Planck effectively argues, lies in the hands of stockyards, not spinach growers, and the blame and remedies should be their responsibility.

 If cattle are fedon grass for one week, this dangerous form of e-coli dies back 1000 fold.  This would make their meat much safer, and longer periods on grass, or perhaps alternating cycles on grass and fattening grain might be enough to make us safer safer eating our leafy greens.  It also might save the Salinas Valley growers, who are getting a bad reputation because of their cattle yard neighbors’ inability to control their sewage.

This a case of what economists call externailities.  The cattle yards do not bear the cost of escaping manure laden with acid-loving e-coli.  The spinach farmers do pay the cost, but they cannot dictate that the cattlemen control their own pollution.  That’s the FDA’s job, which it is clearly falling down on.  (To get back on-topic for a moment, another example of an externality is CO2: emitters don’t pay the price, so we all do in the form of global warming.)

The fact that spinach farmers pay the price for slightly cheaper beef, while we (through the FDA) pay subsidies of holding ponds that aren’t doing the trick (we should be building anaerobic digesters anyway) is what really bothers me.

I’m not a person who believes we should all go back to nature, but we have to acknowledge that when we take animals and force them to our ends, there will be unforeseen consequences, and simply trying to control things by engineering will always fail some of the time; it is best to reduce the risks (in this case, by keeping cattle from eating grain all the time), as a supplement to the engineering of holding ponds (or digesters.)

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1 Comment

  1. Wendy Wheeler said

    When one of the top Google news stories this week was that they had identified the e.coli strain on the tainted spinach as the same e.coli strain from the nearby cattle stockyard, I thought of your post.

    Looks like these things can sometimes become big news and make some changes. (Sadly, babies and adults died in process in this case.)

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