Safe Food and Fertilizer

Earth Island News

When most people think of recycling, they think of aluminum cans, newspaper, glass, milk jugs, and cardboard being diverted from landfills to conserve resources for future generations. That is, after all, the process that Congress envisioned with the creation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 – an act many know as “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and whose primary goal is the reduction of waste generated in the first place.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this seemingly benign practice. This is the unregulated world of hazardous and solid waste recycling, which affects you and your family every day, regardless of what you eat or where you live.

Many regulations governing recycling are not designed for food protection, but instead to save money for the waste-generating industries. From the recycling of hazardous wastes to make fertilizer to the recycling of animal wastes to make animal feed, regulations appear to be written for the convenience of industry.

person wearing a hat and gardeningPhotos.comDo organic gardeners run the risk of mad cow?

Hazardous wastes and other industrial by-products from steel mills, foundries, coal-fired plants and even nuclear fuel processors are routinely “recycled” into fertilizer (see and Earth Island Journal Autumn 2003, Page 16). These practices are obviously alarming, because industrial waste may contain dioxin and heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. But before you reach for that organic fertilizer, buyer beware! Organic fertilizer may also contain hazardous materials.

In 1980 the FDA reversed a 1967 prohibition on feeding poultry waste to cattle, leaving the regulation of feeding animal wastes to the individual states (45 FR 86272-86276). Downer cattle – dead, dying, diseased or disabled (what the Food and Drug Administration refers to as the 4-Ds) – have also been “recycled” into feed, including poultry feed, as a source of protein.

While the case of mad cow disease in Washington state may have been from a Canadian herd prior to the 1997 ban on feeding ruminant proteins to cattle, it is equally plausible – though state and federal agencies have not discussed it with the public – that the case was caused by feeding contaminated poultry feces to cattle. The FDA did not ban the inclusion of ruminant proteins in non-ruminant feed as did the United Kingdom. Thus ruminant proteins from both healthy and 4-D animals continued to be “recycled” into animal feed and pet foods, including poultry feed.

The problem is that poultry feces have routinely been used as cattle feed, keeping the prohibited cycle of “feeding cattle to cattle” intact. Perhaps the recent finding of mad cow will alert any Americans who naïvely believe that the government is protecting the food supply.

In August 2002, I attended an American Association of Plant Food Control Officials meeting in Kansas City where this topic was discussed. Led by Steve Wong of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the discussion centered around the large volumes of “potentially contaminated” poultry waste that could no longer be used as cattle feed, nor ever be spread as fertilizer on land where cattle would ever graze. Since the rogue proteins that cause mad cow cannot be destroyed, this suggests the question: Where will all this “potentially contaminated” poultry waste wind up?

It’s possible that the answer is your backyard and the backyard of other home gardeners looking to avail themselves of organic fertilizer. Know the source of your organic fertilizer, and consider avoiding those that contain poultry wastes. The Washington State Department of Ecology maintains a searchable Web site from which you can identify some fertilizers that contain poultry wastes.

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