Is sewage sludge to blame?

A salad platter.

The latest reports of contaminated salad ingredients in the United States recently forced Dole Fresh Vegetables to recall 756 cases of its DOLE Seven Lettuces salad because the product may be contaminated with Salmonella, according to the website Food Safety News.

Let’s say at the outset that the concerns come only from positive tests for salmonella, and not from any verified reports of food-borne illness in the United States related to Dole’s products.

This sort of news seems to be increasing in frequency. You may recall the problem linked to tomatoes and spinach of a few years ago that caused widespread panic as the news media, doing what they do best, ran with the notion that America’s farmers were killing people with the food they produce. People stopped eating at Taco Bell (they apparently used some of the tomatoes in question), and people stopped buying packaged spinach because of the fears stirred by the media.

Then in 2010 it was reported that E. coli O145 was possibly traced to romaine lettuce packaged in the Salinas Valley of California, forcing one company to recall 1,000 cartons of lettuce.

Call me inquisitive, but is there a link between these reports and the reported use of municipally treated sewage sludge and waste water in California’s salad bowl?

Is there a connection?

During the late 1990s I had a front-row seat related to the discussion of the land application of sewage sludge (just think human waste and other solid and liquid products cities process and treat at large, smelly multimillion dollar facilities). This discussion took place in one of America’s top ag producing counties and had far-reaching implications for agriculture and the entire municipal waste treatment industry because it was the later that needed to find a place to discard this stuff.

That the federal government continues to call this stuff “biosolids” in a public relations effort to soften what it really is, caused this skeptic back then to want more information on the matter. It led me to believe rather quickly that consumers were being lied to while farmers were being duped into trusting the very government agencies with the power and authority to destroy their businesses and their livelihoods, not to mention the trust placed on American agriculture by the consuming public.

So, I ask again: are farmers in California’s salad bowl and elsewhere being duped by government agencies, through nefarious and other means, to accept stuff that is poisoning America’s salads and farmland? If so, are these government agencies willing to hold farmers harmless (legally speaking) when their farms are shut down after the PR nightmare runs its course on the evening news and in print?

I’m not saying that the latest news is directly linked to facts previously reported that farms have been using biosolids to fertilize their farmland. It is, however, rather curious to me as a journalist and naturally-inquisitive person, that we continue to hear and read such stories about the food we eat.

As an advocate for American agriculture and an educated consumer it makes me worried both for farmers and for consumers: for farmers because they’re the ones directly in line to lose the most — their farms and their livelihoods — and for consumers as it causes us to question the safety of the food we buy and eat.

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