Spinach Solution: Eat Grass?

Author, entrepreneur, and farm-to-table provocateur Nina Planck has a solution to the E. coli outbreak linked to raw spinach: Eat grass.

Her recommendation is not for humans, but for cows.

Writing in the op-ed page of The New York Times, Planck argues that the deadly strain of E. coli (E. coli O157:H7, to be exact) which has infected more than 100 people, thrives in cows which are fed grain rather than grass:

Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms.

Planck cites a study that showed that when grain-fed cows—which make up 80 percent of the dairy and cattle industries—were switched to a diet of hay for as little as 5 days, E. coli O157 declined a thousand-fold:

This is good news. In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home — even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of, say, hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993.

While moving the cattle and dairy industry from grain to grass—which would be a seismic shift in the current state of commercial agriculture—may be the only long-term solution to outbreaks like the one we’re currently experiencing, Planck acknowledges that in the short-term, the transformation won’t reduce the amount of already existing bacteria-infected waste contaminating ground water and irrigation sources.

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