Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Re: E. Coli
No Transgenics in Organic Ag

Re: E. Coli

To the editor;

In response to Bob Sewall’s editorial in the December 1998 to February, 1999 Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener, I would like to provide more information to readers. Sewall referred to a study by Cornell researchers who switched cows from grain to hay and found fewer coliform bacteria in the feces of the hay-fed cows. They also found that these bacteria were killed by acid equal to the pH of the human stomach. Bacteria in the feces of the grain-fed cows were more numerous and more acid-resistant; these bacteria were not killed at the pH of the human stomach. The food safety implication is that coliforms from hay-fed cows, which could include members of the pathogenic 0157:H7 strain of E. coli, are safer because they don’t survive the human, stomach to colonize a person’s gut.

In voicing his opinion on antibiotics, Sewall made wrong statements and mischaracterized the Cornell study. Sewall implied that cows on the grain diet harbored the pathogenic E. coli, and said, “Take beef critters out to pasture for five weeks before slaughter and they are magically freed of the bacteria.” He said he is convinced that the effects the researchers observed occurred because the cows stopped eating grain with antibiotics in it. He also said that antibiotics ingested by cows create conditions “in which such pathogens as E. coli 0157:H7 can flourish.”

– In the study, no strain of E. coli magically disappeared when the cows’ diet changed, and none of the test cows had any E. coli 0157:H7 at any time before or after the diet change.

– In the study, the grain the cows had been eating had no antibiotics in it; there was not a switch from a diet with antibiotics in it to one with no antibiotics in it.

– In the study, I also learned that the pathogenic 0157:H7 strain of E. coli does not “flourish” in the gut of a cow who does harbor this strain. It is not very competitive with other non-pathogenic strains and typically remains a small component of the microbial community In the gut. Neither does it flourish on a herd level. In cases where 0157:H7 illness was traced directly to a group of animals, less than 2% of the herd had been 0157:H7-positive. Sewall states that the researchers did not explain how the dietary change worked to produce the observed effects. Actually, in their paper, they do explain in detail the mechanisms involved. The grain diet, mostly corn, is high in starch, which the microbes in the rumen (stomach) can’t ferment, or “eat,” completely. However, coliforms, which inhabit the colon, can ferment starch. So larger populations of E. coli live in the colons of cows who eat mostly grain because abundant food for the bacteria reaches the colon. When the bacteria in the colon ferment starch, the breakdown products are different acids, which lower the pH of the colon. E. coli from the acidic colons of grain-fed cows survived an acid shock treatment in the laboratory. E. coli from the less acidic colons of hay-fed cows were killed by the same acid-shock. The practical point the researchers go on to make is that the more acid-resistant E. coli there are in manure, the more likely is contamination of the meat during slaughter, or of crops fertilized with the manure.

Please do not use this newspaper to disseminate wrong information and half-cocked conjecture. To get my facts straight, I talked to three University of Maine Specialists, one UM researcher, a vet at the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland, and one of the authors of the Cornell study. These were very educational conversations, but the easiest thing I did was to get a copy of the paper from the library and read it. I want agriculture to become more sustainable. Flagship agricultural change organizations like MOFGA are essential to the process. The credibility of such an organization is derived from the information it tenders.

– Ed Lindsey, Charleston, Maine

Bob Sewall told The MOF&G that he hopes that one of the main messages of his editorial was not missed: the lack of logic in blaming apple cider for E. coli problems and requiring that this one particular product be labeled or pasteurized, while other foods that have a greater potential for contamination are not labeled. Pasteurization, he says, destroys the flavor and nutritional quality of cider.


No Transgenics in Organic Ag

Dear Board Members and Friends,

We are very concerned with transgenics in agriculture and would like to voice our opinions concerning the MOFGA Certification Standards issue. We do not support any transgenic crops and believe they should be banned. Any exemption concerning transgenic crops is going against the very essence of what organic agriculture is. We believe that MOFGA should immediately seize the opportunity to take a firm stand and strengthen our position as truly clean organic producers. We do believe that MOFGA should impose its philosophy on others concerning Genetic Engineering to support the integrity of our organization and what it stands for and against.

All transgenic crops risk unaccountable contamination to our whole ecosystem. Many consequences have not been considered, therefore in good conscience we believe all organic organizations should not waffle in their decision to reject any part of genetically engineered food and seed. We encourage the board to act on the integrity of our standards and not to focus its concerns on those growers and producers who will not be allowed under the new guidelines. If this means key players are temporarily out of the market, then it is their responsibility to bring their operations into compliance.

We support the IFOAM declaration “supporting the immediate ban of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production …” and the stated reasons.

We believe that consumer demand for non-transgenic crops has only been retarded by a lack of labeling and intentional industrial deceit. As Certified Organic Growers we are well positioned to supply clean seed and produce to a truly threatened state of agriculture. We believe the positive aspects of a firm stance against transgenics in the long run will far outweigh the concern of forcing our philosophy on others.

We would appreciate being kept informed on any decision made by the board on this issue.

– John and Susan Belding, Old Stage Farm, Lovell, Maine

Please see “MOFGA Pushing Harder Against Engineered Organisms” in “News & Events.”


MOF&G Cover Spring 1999