Are Bean Sprouts the End of Organic Farming? Nah.

My current favorite news story is one by Reuters about an outbreak of e,coli in Germany attributed to organically grown bean sprouts with the ridiculous headline "E. Coli Outbreak Poses Questions for Organic Farming." Now it is absolutely true that there is a nasty outbreak of e.coli in Germany that has made thousands of of people sick, and caused 22 deaths. This is awful. But Reuters has a little accuracy problem as it leaps to attack organic agriculture:

The warm, watery, organic growing environment suspected as the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany may produce delicious, nutritious bean sprouts, but is also an ideal breeding ground for the dangerous bacteria.

Bean sprouts are often prime suspects in E.coli outbreaks around the world, and health experts say it is no surprise the hunt for source of the lethal strain that has killed 22 people and made more than 2,200 sick has led to an organic bean farmer.

Some say the case raises questions about the future of organic growing methods.

"Bean sprouts are very frequently the cause of outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. They're very difficult to grow hygienically and you have to be so careful not to contaminate them," said Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at Britain's University of East Anglia.

"And organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilizers, carry an extra risk."

Problem the first - the WHO actually has no idea whether sprouts were involved - so far all indications have been negative. That doesn't mean a batch of organic sprouts couldn't have been contaminated - it is perfectly true that sprouts are particularly prone to bacterial growth whether organic or conventional - just that the statements of implied certainty in the article are nonsense.

On Tuesday, the EU health chief warned Germany against premature -- and inaccurate -- conclusions on the source of contaminated food. The comments by EU health chief John Dalli came only a day after he had defended the German investigators, saying they were under extreme pressure.

Dalli told the EU parliament in Strasbourg that information must be scientifically sound and foolproof before it becomes public.

In outbreaks, it is not unusual for certain foods to be suspected at first, then ruled out. In 2008 in the U.S., raw tomatoes were initially implicated in a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Consumers shunned tomatoes, costing the tomato industry millions. Weeks later, jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico were determined to be the cause.

In the current E. coli outbreak, tests are continuing on sprouts from an organic farm in northern Germany, but have so far come back negative,

Previously, imported Spanish conventional produce was implicated. I cannot find, however, any indication that Reuters ran an article arguing that the whole globalized food system was in jeopardy because important cucumbers might have been the source.

The second problem is that even if organic bean sprouts were the problem, this would have absolutely nothing do with the larger project of organic farming. Bean sprouts are not "farmed" in the same way that most food is farmed - they are instead kept in a warm, moist environment, almost always inside. They need stable, extremely warm temperatures - growing bean sprouts is a lot more like raising fish in an aquarium or hydroponics than it is like most organic farming. Observing that bean sprouts are a risk for carrying e.coli has absolutely nothing to do with organic agriculture in general.

There's also no statistical evidence that organic bean sprouts have sickened more people than conventional ones. The single largest e.coli outbreak in history, in Japan was linked to conventionally grown, industrial radish sprouts. The German outbreak is the second largest ever - and most of the next largest ones on the list are associated with two things - industrial beef or groundwater water contamination from nearby industrial animal production. And yet somehow, this never seems to raise questions or flags about the larger industrialized food system.

Indeed, the rise of some of the nastiest forms of bacterial illness are directly associated with confinement and industrial agriculture - those of us who use manure on crops are now faced with a culture that blames organic agriculture for disease outbreaks caused by packing animals into feedlots and pouring antibiotics into their food. Now all of us must face the consequences that the bacteria that emerge from these environments affect us all.


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The latest "Ask a ScienceBlogger" question is: What's up with organic foods? What are the main arguments for buying organic? Is it supposed to be better for me, or better for the planet, or what? Are organics, in any sense, worth the higher price? It's true that I live in California (in the San…

Big corporate interests never passes on an opportunity to bash organic - why would this time be different?

Sharon, this is the same as when Dr. Atkins fell and then died from kidney failure as a result of his head injury. Big corporations were threatened by his methods - whatever you may think of his initial phase of diet, the maintenance phase is simply eating a diet that mainly avoids anything that comes out of a box and is nutritionally dense - and when it threatened to reach a mainstream level, his fall was serendipitous for them. Instead of (correctly) attributing his kidney failure to the fact that ANY trauma in a man his age, let alone a massive head bleed, would most likely lead to death, they jumped on it as a result of his 'wacky' diet. It was perfect for the advertisers - the news media was happy to go along - and the average Joe never realized that media manipulation was at the heart of this 'news' story.

Here again, we have a 'news' story in which a method of farming, with nutritionally dense foods as a result, being maligned because of the threat it poses to big corporations and their profits.

I guess it's a man bites dog story as much as anything else. CAFOs making people sick isn't a "hook", but healthy organics is. Though Reuters does often go out of its way to be obnoxious.

No, the Spanish produce reports I saw on cucumbers were also organic. But in addition the largest Salmonella outbreak in the US recently was also organic sprouts--Tiny Greens Organic sprouts.

It not about whose sprouts are more toxic. It's about the mistaken aura that Marion Nestle has talked about with words like "organic" and "natural" that mislead people into thinking they are by definition safe--when that's just not the case.

I can report from Belgium, that so far from the 40 things they took from the organic 'farm', 24 gave results and they were all negative! No trace of the bacteria...

The Reuter's article seems to be far more accurate than your blog post, particularly your last paragraph.

The sprouts have been redeemed. Not only the samples taken from the farm were negative, but, and this is probably the most important one, the sample taken from the open packege left in the fridge of one of the patients. So, although he consumed those very sprouts that were thought to be the source, they were "clean".
So, it was neither the organic Spanish cucumbers, nor the organic sprouts. But thank you, my dear government, for spreading unrest and despair. After the dioxin in the chicken fodder I thought they couldn't set a new record of incompetence, but they did.

I think we need to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of organic vs "normal" farming not in the light of what is happening in Germany at the moment, but in the light of what is happening in the world every day, where one part is dying of obesity and the others of starvation.

Perhaps I'm just not well informed on the subject, but I never, ever heard of eating bean sprouts uncooked. Alfalfa sprouts and other leafy sprouts: yes, they're certainly eaten uncooked. Bean sprouts aren't eaten uncooked so far as I know, but cooked in stir-fries and soups.

So I really was somewhat sketpical of the 'bean sprouts are the culprit' idea right along.


By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 08 Jun 2011 #permalink

Mike, you are rapidly becoming my favorite troll ever! Of course confinement livestock handling produces only fairy dust out the rectums of the overcrowded animals.


I am a troll because I call you out for your hyperbole and inaccurate statements. This has nothing to do with fairy dust, just organic quackery.

I can't recall the source now, but a mainstream media article speculated that part of the problem in tracking down the source of the contamination in Germany is a tendency (asserted without any corroboration) among health authorities in Europe (nations unspecified) to try to locate the source of food poisoning by testing suspected sources rather than the more rigorous method of epidemiological investigation where scientists attempt to suss out what all the victims have in common. That is, did they all eat at one restaurant, did they all buy a particular brand of cheese, etc. Apparently, the "test every batch of sprouts, cukes, etc, until we find the bad batch/supplier" method only works for a very short time and then the potential sources are just rotting messes of vegetal matter in people's fridges and garbage cans and of little use to investigators.

It should be obvious to all that the E.Coli was planted by big corporate interests who want to force us to eat irradiated produce. They won't be satisfied until we're all glowing like cat pee under a black light.

By Die Zauberflotist (not verified) on 08 Jun 2011 #permalink

planted by big corporate interests who want to force us to eat irradiated produce. They won't be satisfied until we're all glowing like cat pee under a black light.

Speaking as a big corporate interest I can say not even then - the goal is permaglow due to the overhead of installing all those blacklights.

I am a troll because I call you out for your hyperbole and inaccurate statements

Pointing out that quite a number of "outbreaks" have been caused by poor animal care is hardly hyperbole, frankly I thought it was common knowledge. Salmonella and mad-cow disease being obvious choices. You should also be aware that over-use of antibiotics is a known factor behind the evolution of new resistant virus strains. Two matters that we English can tell you all about with dark relish.

There is a lot of hyperbole about farming, but this is not it. Die Zauberflotist though, well thats another story.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 09 Jun 2011 #permalink

Since when do sprouts need fertilizer? That's the part I don't get.

By ideasinca (not verified) on 09 Jun 2011 #permalink

Who actually takes Reuters or American Press seriously?

To those idiots, "fact checking" means limiting or controlling the facts, not verifying them as the term has traditionally meant.


I thought it was interesting that most news articles don't focus at all on the organic farming connection. Organic farming enthusiasts claim that it is healthier than non-organic farming. This claim, while attractive to many, is not yet supported by significant scientific research, but instead relies largely on anecdotal reports and conflated claims of the risks associated with pesticides and herbicides. Since we are all concerned with safety, it is important to recognize that there may be issues associated with organic farming. We shouldn't hide from that fact by pretending there are no risks as the author would apparently prefer.

To-day, news reports implicate bean sprouts again. So it goes. Organic - non organic, it's nonsense. All food is organic. And if your food production is lazy and careless people will get tummy ache, or worse, whether the label is organic or not. Personally, I generally avoid any food with an 'organic' label. It's just a marketing gimmick.

By Chris Shaw (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink

"Are Bean Sprouts the End of Organic Farming? Nah."

No, like Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the organic farming cult won't go away, it will just mutate into something else.

The real problems with "organic" farming are too numerous to list.

BTW: I'm a former "organic" farmer, now licensed as a pesticides applicator. When I worked on an organic farm, I had to be undergo training to apply pesticides.

That's right, pesticides.

By Mike Bendzela (not verified) on 10 Jun 2011 #permalink