E. Coli Outbreak Source Identified

The agricultural minister of the Lower Saxony region of Germany, Gert Lindemann, has identified German bean sprouts as the probable source for the recent E. coli outbreak that caused 22 deaths and over 2,200 illnesses so far, with many of them developing the deadly haemolytic uraemic syndrome that attacks the kidneys.

Lower Saxony’s agriculture ministry recently conducted tests on 40 samples of the suspected sprouts from an organic bean sprout farm called Gaertnerhof. As of now,

23 of the samples have tested negative, and an investigation at the Gaertnerhof farm also found no traces of the harmful E. coli strain.

Despite the negative test results, several factors continue to associate the factory to the E. coli outbreak. Several restaurants and locations connected to the outbreak received their shipment of sprouts from that company. In addition, two workers at Gaertnerhof and two U.S. men working on the case in Germany have developed illness and diarrhea due to E. coli infections. Officials argue that the negative results could be explained by the possibility that the E. coli strain infected the sprouts and company at an earlier period and could therefore no longer be found there. Although the unusual strain has been found in a variety of other products, like cucumbers and tomatoes, officials say that the farm continues to be “the most convincing source for the E. coli illnesses”.

Gaertnerhof has expressed that it is “shocked and worried” due to the connection between the company and the tragedies caused by the E. coli outbreak. The small farm, which has been growing sprouts for 25 years, has been closed down and all of its goods and products are being recalled.

The identification of German sprouts as the source of the E. coli outbreak comes as a bittersweet resolve to Spanish farmers, whose cucumbers were initially believed to be the source. Last week E. coli was found in organic cucumbers from Spain, but they were packaged and distributed in Germany.  As a result, demand and consumption of Spanish agricultural goods has declined by 40% since the outbreak, causing Spanish farmers to lose €200m euros in sales per week and threatening to leave 70,000 people out of work.

Due to the fact that the outbreak has also affected agricultural consumption throughout Europe, the European Union plans to hold an assembly to discuss how to help Spanish farmers with their losses. The director of Fepex, a group of Spanish produce exporters, has demanded that Germany not only apologize for the damage the outbreak has caused to the Spanish farming industry but also pay them 400 million euros, equivalent to $584 million, for profit losses.

As for the infected bean sprouts, since 1996 there have been 30 outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli from sprouts, including a serious one in radish sprouts that caused 9,451 cases of E. coli infection in Japan. According to health officials, bacteria in sprouts can grow in the seeds or in the water used to grow them; in this case the water is believed to have been the source of the problem. Sprouts are grown in 38°C water, which is considered a perfect temperature for bacteria such as E. coli to thrive in and spread massively.

Although they are unsure of whether the current death and illness rates have reached their peak, U.S. and U.K. health officials continue to encourage consumers to avoid bean sprouts as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, and salad leaves that may possibly be infected. During times of non-infection, health officials have always maintained that people with weak immune systems should only eat sprouts when they are well cooked.

Soil Erosion A Heap Of A Problem in U.S. Farm States, Study Shows

Overfarming in Iowa and other farm states has led to greater soil erosion than previous estimates suggested, according to a new study called “Losing Ground,” presented by Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG is working to spread the word about unsustainable farming practices and to fight the federal policies that are destroying what was once precious, rich farmland.

Working alongside Iowa State University, EWG discovered that soil loss in Iowa was sometimes as much as 12 times that of the national average. Recent rains stripped the soil as much as 64 tons per acre and scientists are blaming overfarming for the problem. EWG used data from ISU scientists who tracked soil erosion after every storm. They corroborated the data with aerial surveys that reveal the destruction. 40 percent of Iowa fields lost more than the national average.

The findings disagree with federal findings from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which the EWG suggests were unreliable estimates. In April 2010, the NRCS estimated there were 5.2 tons lost per acre per year, which is just a touch above the sustainable rate. EWG’s data, on the other hand, shows a far more grim reality. They claim the difference comes because they’ve considered the gullies that act as “pipelines” during heavy rains, carrying tons of water and precious soil away from farmland in a flash.

The problem lies in the farmlands’ lack of balance and enormous magnitude. Fields are placed side by side, using up every bit of space to maximize output. Farmers are desperate to “get every bushel out of every acre” so they plant their fields “fence row to fence row,” snug up against what would otherwise be clean, fresh streams.

 In their video, EWG describes Iowa farmland as marked by gullies that wash away topsoil and create “a direct pipeline delivering mud, toxic farm chemicals, and bacteria to our streams, rivers, and eventually our drinking water supplies.” Incorporating areas of grass between crops and streams would prevent everything from running together in this way, but since farmers want to harvest every bit possible, they fail to leave space for these necessary barriers.

Environmentalists do not blame farmers for the problem, though; they blame federal government who pays enticing subsidies to overproducing corn and soybean farmers. $51 billion in federal funding has been spent on boosting all-out production in states like Iowa. Farmers are given subsidies to grow as much corn and soybeans as possible. Sustainable farmers who allow space between their farmland and nearby streams are underfunded and struggle to stay financially stable.

The pesticides, fertilizers, and harmful chemicals in soil run-off end up hitting our drinking water sources and have already turned an area of the Gulf into a notorious dead zone. Soil erosion is not just threatening our land; it is harming our health and happiness. It “renders our water undrinkable, our beaches unfit to swim in, and has created an area in the Gulf so contaminated that aquatic life has to flee or die.”

The EWG has presented a number of recommendations to Congress to fix the crisis, hoping to save the land before it is too late. They suggest that old conservation plans, which had been in place prior to 1996, be reopened and revised. The plans should require treatment and prevention of gullies and erosion. Farms should have buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between crops and water sources. Non-native crop subsidies should be eliminated, and funding for USDA technical staff should be boosted so conservation practices and inspections are enforced.

Mass-scale farming might bring in big bucks for a few corn and soy farmers, but it does not help the majority of Americans or our nation’s farmlands. Health and well-being are at stake, and we can’t even measure how they will be affected if the government does not invest in efforts to curb soil erosion. A policy change is necessary, otherwise the fruitful land that once characterized the farm states of our country will become a myth.

Photo credit: ars.usda.gov

EPA States Saccharin is Not a Health Risk

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the removal of saccharin from its hazardous substances list.  The EPA stated the popular sweetener is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.  Cleared in the late 1990s by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, saccharin remained on the hazardous substances list until a request for its removal was made from the Calorie Control Council.

Saccharin is most well known as the white crystalline powder used to sweeten diet soft drinks, chewing gum, juice, and toothpaste.  Commercially, saccharin can be found in acid form known as saccharin or in salt form known as sodium saccharin or calcium saccharin.  First synthesized in 1879, the sweetener known to be roughly 300 times sweeter than sucrose or sugar, became widely popular across the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s.  The world’s oldest artificial sweetener allowed people to enjoy sweets in a low-calorie or sugar free form.

Discovered by John Hopkins University researchers, saccharin was first enjoyed by diabetics.  Saccharin allowed the diabetic person to sweeten his or her food without worrying about the glucose (or calories) found in sugar.  Saccharin became so popular, the president of the time, President Theodore Roosevelt, formed the Remsen Board of Consulting Scientific Experts.  The Remsen Board continually reviewed charges of safety issues associated with the sweetener.  President Roosevelt was personally involved in regulatory saccharin activity and opposed any attempts of stopping production. 

Though popular, saccharin use was limited until the onset of World War I and World War II.  Food rationing made alternative food substitutes necessary.  Rationings included sugar limitations in both the U.S. and across Europe.  With sugar availability limited, households turned to saccharin.  After World War I and World War II, saccharin continued to increase in popularity as people’s interest in weight issues increased.  Its low cost, low-calorie, and sugar free availability made saccharin a leader in sugar alternatives.  However, in the 1970s and 1980s health concerns increased as studies linked large quantities of saccharin use to carcinogens. 

The EPA listed saccharin as a potential cancer causing agent based on controversial 1970s rat experiments.  The experiments found high doses of sodium saccharin caused bladder cancer / tumors in male rats.  Based on the research findings, the United States Congress mandated all foods with saccharin must provide a warning on the label.  The Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977 went into affect strengthening the need for warnings on all food products with saccharin.    

Of all food ingredients, saccharin is the most researched. Continued analysis from international scientists found “saccharin administered to the rat at high doses produces profound biochemical and physiological changes which do not occur in humans under normal patterns of use.”  Further research determined the sweetener is indeed an unlikely cause for human cancer.  Reviews of the rat experiments suggests rat’s have a unique combination of urine pH and sodium levels, protein types and concentrations, and diet.  The combination of chemistry levels are not found in humans.  Scientists, government, and industry are currently in agreement with the safety of saccharin use.   

In December 2000, President Clinton signed legislation removing the need for warning labels on saccharin products.  That same year, the National Toxicology Program removed saccharin from its list of known carcinogens.  Despite saccharin being delisted on other hazardous product listing, saccharin continued to appear on EPA’s list.  The Calorie Control Council, an international food trade association representing low-calorie food industry, petitioned EPA to delist saccharin.  In April 2010, “EPA proposed removing saccharin and its salts from the hazards’ list.”  With no opposition, saccharin was removed.