Manure Use Common

ManureUse Common, But is it Safe?  E.coli Cases Raise Experts' Suspicions AboutLongtime Agriculture Practice

August5, 2000
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Karen Herzog

Few things are, according to thisstory, less intriguing than animal manure. But manure is used to grow fruits andvegetables, and it may find its way into ground meat.

In the past few years, the linkbetween manure and potentially dangerous E. coli bacteria has, the story says,prompted closer scrutiny in the quest to keep food safe.

Some bacterial infectionoutbreaks have been traced to tainted vegetables, such as alfalfasprouts and lettuce, according to the national Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention in Atlanta. Food safety and agriculture experts areanalyzing the longtime practice of spreading cattle manure on fields to enrichand stabilize it, and studying whether manure is safely handled at farms andslaughterhouses.

If properly composted - or aged -manure is considered safe for fruits and vegetables. If not, it can harborpotentially dangerous bacteria that live in cattle and other animals, includingthe virulent E. coli O157:H7, which has been linked to an infection outbreak inMilwaukee, and was recognized as a cause of illness less than 20 years ago. TheMilwaukee outbreak so far has resulted in one child's death, 22 people beinghospitalized and at least 58 sickened because they ate tainted food at two localSizzler restaurants in mid-July. Though most of the people infected had eatenwatermelon, meat was believed to be the original source of the bacteria.

Fruit and vegetable growers haveused manure as fertilizer for decades, if not centuries. It's an especiallycommon practice in Wisconsin, since cattle prolifically produce manure. An ABCtelevision "20/20" program that aired Feb. 5 and again July 7suggested that organic produce could be more prone to E. coli contaminationbecause organic farmers rely on natural materials, such as manure, to fertilizetheir crops.

The story says that the rapidlygrowing organic industry touts organic foods as being safer than conventionalfoods because chemicals aren't used. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationreports that it has no conclusive evidence to say organic is more or less safethan other growing methods. The 20/20 report was angrily criticized byenvironmental groups and organic advocates, and one group called this week forthe reporter to be fired.

Peter Slade,research director at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology inChicago - a consortium of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the FDA, andfood industry leaders such as Kraft and Nestle, was quoted as saying,"There's no smoking gun, because I don't think there's any solidresearch" on organic practices. Those who support organics don't want tosponsor that kind of research," adding he is in the process of proposingit.

The National Organic StandardsBoard, a panel that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on nationalstandards for organic production, recommends that raw manure should not beapplied less than 120 days before harvesting foods likely to be eaten raw, orless than 90 days before harvesting foods protected by a husk, pod or shell. Onearea non-organic vegetable grower said she's become wary of using manure inrecent years because "you just don't know if you can keep it from gettingin the food chain."  "That's the controversy," said LeonaRobran of Waterford. She and her husband, Ralph, used a small amount of horsemanure to fertilize soil years ago, Robran said from her farmers market stand atZeidler Park in downtown Milwaukee.

An estimated 73,000 cases ofinfection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year as a result of theE. coli infection, according to the CDC. The story says that the CDC linked cowmanure to E. coli in an October 1992 case in which a 2-year-old boy in ruralMaine died after developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a potentiallyfatal disease caused by E. coli that also killed a 3-year-old girl in theMilwaukee outbreak. The source of bacteria that sickened the Maine boy was afamily vegetable garden fertilized throughout the summer with manure from a cowand calf. The bacteria were passed from a 39-year-old woman to three children,including the child who died, through improper hand washing.

In Illinois, more than 300 peoplebecame seriously ill with E. coli bacterial infections after a Labor Day weekendparty last year in a cow pasture, even though the landowner had tried tothoroughly clean the area beforehand.

And in New York last year, a3-year-old girl and a 79-year-old man died in an E. coli outbreak afterattending a county fair where runoff from cow manure got into a water well,sickening more than 600 people.

Katherine DiMatteo, executivedirector of the Organic Trade Association, was cited as saying manure tends tobe a quality control issue at farms and slaughterhouses and she noted that mostcases of E. coli illness are linked to meat, adding, "You just don't hearabout (E. coli) coming from manure on vegetables."