concerns about e-coli outbreak in germany

Does the e-coli outbreak have any implications for Riverford customers?
We are watching the situation but we're confident there's nothing for Riverford customers to worry about:

  • cases have been confined to one part of Germany, the UK cases being people who have travelled there 
  • we know exactly where all our produce comes from and how it is  grown.  As a precautionary measure we carry out regular testing for presence of bacteria, to make sure the agricultural safeguards we have in place are working effectively. Recent tests on produce grown at home and by our Spanish growers has shown no presence of e-coli bacteria.
  • We have our own transport system so none of our produce gets mixed up with other people’s
  • We have been growing organic vegetables for 25 years, using tried and tested farming methods.  More detail (possibly more than many of you want to read!) below about our farming methods.

That said, we do always advise customers to wash produce that is not going to be cooked.  It does after all come from a farm not a factory.  A good salad spinner is an excellent investment here.

 

Where do Riverford’s beansprouts come from and how are they grown?

On Sunday the E.coli outbreak had been linked to beansprouts on a German farm.  While it is now unlikely they are the source, we’d like to offer some information on our own supply.
Brett Kellett who grows our beansprouts grows in very small batches which are constantly turned and flushed with water.

Beansprouts are the only crop that Brett grows and the whole process takes place indoors. It is more of a hygienic factory type environment than that of a farm. The young sprouts obtain all the energy they need for growth from the seed, naturally reserved there by its mother plant. Hence, no fertiliser or manure is needed or used.

Brett sterilises all of his seed, before germination. To ensure his hygiene standards are effective, he tests every batch of his product for the presence of bacteria, guaranteeing they are perfectly safe and healthy to eat. There are reports that two of the staff at the German farm had previously suffered E. coli and it is possible that these staff infected the crop. Brett has only a couple of employees, who are fully aware of UK legislation that food handlers must inform their manager and not report to work if they have food poisoning symptoms (not that any of them ever have had). 
 

 

Where do Riverford’s cucumbers come from?
The UK cucumber season has just started and all our cucumbers are homegrown for the coming months. For some of the year we sell Spanish cucumbers grown by Paco Sanchez, a grower we know well and trust.  Our cucumbers have been recently tested and are completely clear of E-coli.
 

What about salad crops more generally?
Most of our summer salad crops are home grown, on our own farm or our local grower group farms.  Because we use no heated greenhouses (it is far more environmentally sound to use the Spanish sun) at some times of year crops come from Spain.  We work closely with a small group of committed organic growers,  visiting them frequently. 
 

Should I worry about how organic produce is grown?
We have complete faith in the organic growing methods we use.  We are applying traditional farming methods, tried and tested over time.  Most of our veg is grown on farms like Riverford, a mixed arable and livestock farm.  Livestock plays an important part in maintaining fertility, and enabling a good rotation of crops, with vegetable growing alternating with clover leys grazed by stock.  We are not aware of any organic vegetable growers (other than at garden or allotment scale) who do not use some element of animal input for fertility.   Non-organic vegetables commercially grown use large quantities of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides – which bring their own risks and costs to the environment.
 

What is Riverford’s policy on the use of  manures?
Manures are required in organic systems to ensure that nutrients are maintained within the soil.  In a natural ecosystem, such as woodland, plants grow, leaves senesce, fall and decompose. Deer and birds feed and deposit their droppings and  all of the nutrients are cycled and maintained within the ecosystem.  Farming by its very nature disrupts this as we are deliberately removing nutrients from the ecosystem in the shape of lettuces, carrots and potatoes to feed ourselves.  As farmers it is our job to put these nutrients back into the system.

As organic farmers we aim to do this as close as possible to mother nature’s cyclic plan.  The ethos of organic farming to keep the nutrients maintained and cyclic within the farm.  Like all organic farmers, Riverford, composts the vegetables it cannot sell for use as fertiliser as well as using farm yard animal manures to maintain health soils, crops and ultimately people.

This is in stark contrast to conventional farmers, who typically use artificially produced nitrates to fertilise their soil.  The production of these fertilisers requires huge amounts of energy and is ultimately unsustainable.  Hence, the price of artificial fertilisers is closely linked to the price of oil and as they become more and more expensive, more and more conventional farmers are starting to spread manure as a means of fertilisation. 
 

So what’s the difference between an organic farmer using manure and conventional (non organic) use?
To put it simply a non-organic farmer can apply manure (including human sludge) completely unregulated.  Organic farming has strict standards on manure use.  Nearly all manure has to be composted for 6 months and has to reach a temperature of 55oC for three consecutive days in order to achieve sterilisation of pathogenic bacteria (this happens as part of the natural biochemical / composting management process).  Fresh manure (slurry) can be used but only if it is from organic animals (which are likely to have lower levels of E. coli in their gut due to their high-grass diet).

In its report published in 2000 on organic foods the Food Standards Agency concluded that there are likely to be lower levels of pathogens in manure used on organic farms: “The Soil Association recommendations for manure storage and treatment (solid manure composting and slurry aeration) on organic farms, are likely to lead to enhanced reductions in the levels of pathogens in stored manures which are destined to be spread on the land.”  There are further factors to support this argument.  It has been shown that animals consuming a high grass diet have naturally lower levels of E. coli in their gut.  Soil Association standards stipulate that 60% of a ruminants diet must be grass based.  Non-organic animals are typically fattened on grain.   Finally organic systems have a much more biologically active soil than non-organic systems.  Pathogens will not survive if there is strong competition from other organisms, hence the risks are lessened in organic systems.

At Riverford we also ensure that manures are rotavated to a depth of 5cm and then ploughed to a depth of 20cm to ensure they are fully incorporated into the soil.
 

What about contamination from water?
Here we have to set our own standards as there are no standards or even guidelines on the levels of microbes in irrigation water.  Ours are based on the EC directive for bathing water, which we have then halved, to play really safe – i.e. our irrigation water has to be cleaner than bathing water or we do not use it.  We also ensure there is a four day gap between irrigation and harvest to eradicate any risk of contamination from irrigation water.

Our Spanish growers use a stored water supply from the melting snow of the Andalucian mountains, which is typically of drinking water quality.

We hope that answers any concerns you may have.  Do feel free to call us on 01803 762 059
or email help@riverford.co.uk  if you have any other queries.