It’s a tragic juxtaposition, but no sooner had Germany announced that it was shutting down its nuclear power industry and this happened:
An outbreak of E-coli contamination in organic cucumbers has sickened 1,200 people and killed 14. Scores of victims have lost all kidney function as a result of the infection with many forced to use dialysis.
So far at Fukushima, there have been four deaths of workers – one killed during the earthquake, two washed away in the tsunami, and one clean-up worker who suffered from a heart attack. A couple of workers are suspected to have exceeded radiation limits, but this exposure is well below the levels likely to cause illness as explained here.
These deaths are tragic, but pale in comparison to the overall death toll from the earthquake and tsunami.
The issue of whether or not organic vegetables are more dangerous because of the prevalence of E-coli is controversial and, naturally, fiercely defended by people in the organic industry.
However, this is not a new issue and has been well studied. This study in the US found 350 outbreaks of E. coli over a 20 year period, including 40 deaths. One of the better known outbreaks occurred in 2006 with three deaths and 276 illnesses initially attributed to organic spinach.
Rest assured, if an accident like this happened in the nuclear industry, there would be no operating nuclear power reactors in the United States.
Despite what the organic industry may tell us, a quick review of the academic literature shows that E. coli is a serious problem in organic produce.
This 2004 study found significantly higher levels of E. coli in some organic produce, although the claim that E. coli can find its way into the fibres of vegetables and thus cannot wash off seems to have been discredited. This study found a slightly higher amount of E. coli in properly managed certified organic produce, but not at a level that was statistically significant. However, in produce that used manure compost aged less than 12 months, the prevalence of E. coli was 19 times greater than farms that used older materials.
E. coli was also found to be more prevalent in organic lettuce and, frankly, I would not be putting that stuff on my shopping list in a hurry.
Put simply, most organic vegetables, if properly managed and washed are okay, but vegetables grown with the evil synthetic fertilisers are less prone to causing a shutdown of your kidneys.
Now just imagine the outcry if 14 people had died and 1200 became sick as a result of Fukushima… So why aren’t Germans out on the streets protesting about the deadly potential consequences of organic food?