Food News: E. Coli, Tuna, Anti-Organic Senators

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Lessons From the Latest E. Coli Outbreak

Once again, fresh greens contaminated with potentially fatal E. coli bacteria have sickened American consumers—this time 19 college students in New York, Michigan, and Ohio who had eaten lettuce shipped in from Arizona and sold under the labels Freshway and Imperial Sysco.

Some food safety advocates have used to outbreak to urge passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which cleared the house last summer and remains stalled in the Senate as legislators work on other issues. But groups representing small and organic farmers have expressed fears that the one-size-fits-all nature of the bill will hurt their constituents. They draw a different lesson from the outbreak: once again, large food producers, growing crops out of season to be shipped thousands of miles, fail.

They have a point. Not one of the recent disease outbreaks caused by fresh produce has been traced to crops grown by small producers serving local markets.

Bluefin's Revenge

They may be on the verge of extinction, but the world's bluefin tuna might take a few sushi lovers down with them.

A study by Jacob Lowenstein of the American Museum of natural History in New York that appeared in the journal Biology Letters found that tuna sushi consistently exceeds recommended mercury levels. The researchers tested 100 samples of bluefin, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna from restaurants and supermarkets in New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. They found that a single order of every single sample tested was higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum daily consumption limit for a 132-pound woman.

Know Your Senator

Three prominent Republican Senators recently sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack condemning the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, introduced last fall to help strengthen local food systems.

John McCain (R-AZ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that they had "serious misgivings" about Know Your Farmer. They pointed out that the program is aimed at "small and organic producers" whose customers generally consist of "affluent patrons of urban farmers markets."

"Federal government cannot afford to spend precious Rural Development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture," they wrote.

Whew! That's tough talk, but let's put the situation in perspective. During the past decade, the feds have doled out an average of $17 billion (with a "B") dollars a year to well-to-do growers of wheat, corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops. Some years these welfare payments to agribusiness have soared to $24 billion. Those are the "realities of production agriculture."

By comparison, Know Your Farmer will cost about $65 million (with an "M"). That is less than chump-change, representing something like one third of 1 percent of what the big boys reap in a good year. Yet growers of organic crops alone, only one of the groups to benefit from the program, account for 2.6 percent of the United States food market. And even though it is drastically underfunded by the government, organic has grown by 17 to 20 percent annually over the past few years. Big ag is virtually stagnant, growing by only 2 to 3 percent.

In view of the facts, the Senators' letter shows both mean-spiritedness and poor business sense.