Monday, October 5, 2009

Bagged Salad Greens Kill Baby Animals

As I wrote in the March/April 2009 issue of Sierra:
That bag of prewashed salad in the supermarket may be convenient for you, but it's becoming less so for wild critters. After E. coli O157:H7 from bagged spinach killed three people and sickened nearly 200 in 2006, some producers of bagged leafy greens, among them Dole and the Chiquita subsidiary Fresh Express, developed proprietary standards known as "supermetrics" that require farmers to keep their fields totally free of wildlife.

In California's Salinas Valley, the source of 80 percent of the nation's lettuce, the result has been an all-out assault on the natural world. Nearly 90 percent of farmers there are clearing trees, plants, and brush; leaving poison bait for birds, squirrels, and mice; draining waterways or dousing them with frog-killing copper sulfate; and erecting eight-foot-high fences to keep out deer.

Farmers don't want to be doing this," explains Diana Stuart, an agricultural management graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "But the market is controlled by a handful of powerful companies, and they're helpless to resist."

Mike Burness, Fresh Express's vice president for global quality and food safety, insists that the company doesn't require vegetation removal--it simply asks farmers not to grow near vegetation. "If a food-safety concern exists regarding a specific vegetative area, we would ask the grower to grow elsewhere in the field, or move to a different field altogether," he says. Such rules may be counterproductive. Less than one percent of wildlife carries E. coli, but up to 50 percent of cows do, and denuded soil allows dust from tainted manure to blow onto cropland. "Relatively small grass buffers can filter 99 percent of pathogens," says U.S. Department of Agriculture resource conservationist Danny Marquis.

Stuart hopes consumers can make the difference: "Do people know when they buy bagged salad, frogs are being poisoned in their ponds?"

Buy a head of lettuce and wash it yourself. Really, when did we become so lame that washing a head of lettuce was too much effort? Or buy prewashed mixed greens directly from an organic farmer at the farmer’s market – small farmers are likely to be using sustainable methods that preserve wildlife. The huge processing plants where the greens are washed and bagged are where contamination can spread most easily, and sealed plastic bags sitting in a supermarket are a nice petri dish for bacterial growth.

For more information, visit the Wild Farm Alliance.