Saturday, December 09, 2006

The NYT fails to do REAL Gumshoe Work

by Ken Houghton

(I hasten to note upfront that Tina Kelley, one of the five "contributing" reporters on this story, is a friend, and her daughter is one of Valerie's best friends. I trust this will remain true after this blog post.)

UPDATE: Via PGL at AngryBear, I note that the Washington Post is doing the groundwork, without being so encouraging as the NYT.

Most of the time, I leave the science postings here to Tom and Drek. But there are times when competent science reporting is so absent that even I can notice it and describe it.

For instance, this NYT piece on the E. coli outbreak at Northeastern Taco Bells. Imagine a mystery novel where the death was by stabbing up through the rib cage, and the murderer at the end is paraplegic. Perhaps Ann Outhouse would find this credible, but most readers would not.

What, then, are we to say for an article that fulsomely praises the "detective work" that discovered that the E. coli outbreak was linked to some scallions—and never once mentions that scallions (like spinach before it) do not naturally carry E. coli bacteria

Given you a hint: the hint is runoff. Which one might miss once, but it would be hard to have forgotten the reality:
E. coli is found only in the intestines of cows, birds, pigs, and other warm-blooded animals.

E. coli does not grow on vegetables. The only way it can be on vegetables is if they are both exposed to intestinal flora and not cleaned well enough afterward.

Somehow, seven reporters—and presumably some editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders—managed to leave that detail out of the equation.

In short, Taco Bell's "prompt action" failed to address the root cause of the problem—either they or their supplier is not diligent in preparing the scallions. The real "gumshoe work" is still to be done.

But NYT readers won't find that in the article.

Tom adds: As Mrs. Coulter notes in the comments, misapplication of manure can lead to contamination that can't be washed away — the bacteria are taken up into the plants via the root system. It would remain a question as to whether the supplier's handling practices would help contain or propagate such contamination.

Going organic may help, as organic growing regulations only allow applications of composted manure within 120 days of harvest for vegetables whose edible parts directly contact the soil.
Actually, it is possible for the e. coli to be inside the spinach/scallions. The root system takes up contaminated water, and voila, no amount of washing will clean it up. Scary stuff.

Grain-fed cows remain the problem, but even a conscientious produce processor can't do anything about it (except maybe sue the owner of the cows).

But I agree that the NYT could have explained the issues better.
This is why I leave the science to Tom. Since the Ag kids in my high school in the late 1970s were being taught that manure was inefficient fertilizer, I would never have assumed that anyone who produces enough green onions to sell to a Taco Bell—most likey, aConAgra or ADM "farm"—would even consider using it due to the suboptimality.
It doesn't even have to be applied manure. In the California spinach case, one of the theories was that the e. coli was carried from cows at a nearby farm via flooding (I think the current theory has to do with wild boars pooping in the field, though).

Processing likely exacerbates the problem because it spreads small amounts of contamination very widely by mixing it with uncontaminated produce.
What Mrs. C. says regarding spreading the contamination via processing.

As for the choice of fertilizer, it depends on what you mean by "inefficient." (I assume at the time it was inefficient by "better living through science" standards.) One thing to keep in mind is that factory farming of livestock produces manure in enormous quantities, so it may be efficient to use it even if manure isn't optimally constituted. But composting or other "sterilization" processes are critical.
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