For a company with a corporate rap sheet that’s longer than most, you have to admire the brash spokesman for Tyson Foods. We are talking about the one who wrote an email to the media stating that: "There has never been a single, documented instance of a water-borne bacteriological disease being caused by the use of poultry litter."
Tyson knows a thing or two about clean water, as few have as many convictions for violating the federal Clean Water Act as the nation’s largest poultry processor. So when one of their flacks comes out using the words "never" and "documented" in the same sentence–well color us less than impressed.
What does impress us is when a state elected official steps up and refuses to take "good enough" for an answer. Locust Grove, OK, the Country Cottage restaurant, and 341 customers including 72 who required hospitalization and the man who died from E. coli 0111 are part of a mystery that deserves to be solved.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson has refused to accept state agencies reaching a dead-end in their investigation of the E. coli outbreak. Since he sued eight Arkansas poultry companies in 2005 for polluting the Illinois River Basin, his office has become expert in the damages that may be caused by "poultry litter.
So when Edmondson put his investigators on the E. coli 0111 outbreak, they couldn’t help but notice that within a five mile radius of the Country Cottage were 49 poultry farms raising chickens for the likes of Tyson and Simmons Foods. Estimates are the operations involve something like 10,000 tons of poultry litter a year. So much that if it did not impact the ground water it would be a miracle.
To test the Attorney General office’s theory, the water from nearly 70 private wells have been tested this week by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Lab results will be available late next week.
In neighboring Cherokee County, however, E coli has been found in the well water of a mobile home park and the property has been put on a "boil water" order. Until the Locust Grove area results are in, poultry litter will remain a "possible source" of the bacteria that killed one and injured many.
Poultry litter is more than just chicken manure. It is a material used as bedding in poultry operations to render the floor more manageable. Common litter materials are wood shavings, sawdust, peanut hulls, shredded sugar cane, straw, and other dry, absorbant, low-cost organic materials. After use, the litter consists primarily of poultry manure, but also contains the original litter material, feathers, and spilled feed. (Or we might just call it a potential bacteriological cocktail.)
Shortly before the outbreak, the Country Cottage did use its private well water for a time when city water was not available.
Edmondson by insisting that ODEQ and the Health Department aggressively pursue these lines of inquiry has greatly upset the Arkansas-based chicken industry and even some in Oklahoma agriculture. But we say that’s what political courage is all about.