E. coli, that plucky little strain of intestinal bacteria, has popped up in the news again. You’re probably pretty familiar with its recent appearances (Taco Bell, packaged spinach, alfalfa sprouts, and most famously ground beef – all pretty Primal foods, except for, well, one of ‘em). You may even be alarmed at its apparent ubiquity in our food supply. This time, though, you have no reason to fear it – it was traced back to a Danville, VA Nestle plant pumping out infected cookie dough – unless you’re having one of those hazy 80/20 days where it’s more like 20/80 and you wake up covered in wrappers with that weird chemical film in your mouth that can only come from processed junk. If that’s the case, you might want to exercise caution.
So what is E. coli, exactly?
With around a hundred strains currently known to man, Escherichia coli are actually pretty common in warm-blooded animal intestines – and mostly beneficial. Some E. coli strains produce Vitamin K2, while others actively fight other harmful intestinal bacteria. In fact, the dangerous strain is quite rare, and it’s totally innocuous to the original host animal (cows, sheep, chickens, etc). The strain we’re worried about is Escherichia coli O157:H7, which was only discovered in 1982. This is the one that just seems to show up everywhere and cause general mayhem in the affected - including severely bloody stool, abdominal cramps, and even death via kidney failure. It’s nasty stuff.
What’s even nastier is how it’s transmitted to our food. Now, remember that E. coli resides in the intestines of the animals; it’s not embedded in the muscle meat or the fat. If you cut a fresh ribeye from a still-warm carcass of a cow that had E. coli living in its gut, that steak will be totally safe. The only way E. coli gets into our food supply is by improper handling. Imagine that same ribeye, only smeared in factory farmed cow manure, and you’ll get the idea.
Wait… what? How the hell does cow manure get mixed in with our meat? And what about the spinach and the lettuce – how do they get involved?
Experts think most contamination happens immediately post-slaughter, when the job is particularly messy and workers are maybe a bit to preoccupied with the proceedings to be mindful of health standards. Things get even worse when you’re dealing with a factory farm setting. The animals are often standing in knee-high pools of their own feces, the pace is relentless, and the work is assembly line style. There’s no time to wash up or switch gloves or be careful because there’s always another malnourished, frightened, grain-fed, manure-soaked animal coming down the line. And when those same manure-strewn facilities also process produce along with the livestock, that’s when you start getting infected spinach, onions, or even apples. Maybe it’s the infected sewage being used to irrigate fields, or maybe it’s contaminated manure being used for fertilizer. It could even be the increasing prevalence of food processing in the fields, whereby workers will actually trim the fruit and vegetables immediately after picking it (to save even more time and money, of course). You think they’re washing their hands or being especially cautious? They’re probably being paid peanuts for hours of backbreaking work, and anything that will slow them down just means fewer peanuts. If the fields they’re kneeling in were irrigated or fertilized with infected manure, the chance of contamination increases.
After the 2006 spinach outbreak, the farms looked everywhere for the cause. E. coli was found in river water, in cow manure, and in the fields themselves, but the ranchers noticed some broken fences and feral pig tracks and responded by eliminating all the wildlife they could. Deer were shot, frog ponds were poisoned, and local vegetation that attracted wildlife was removed. A 2-year study of wild animals in the area has mostly vindicated the wildlife; out of 866 sample animals, only four had the virulent strain. Out of 184 feral pigs tested, only one was contaminated. Still, it only (theoretically) takes one filthy pig to ruin things for everyone.
What surprised me was that the ranch in question – Paicines Ranch of the Salinas Valley in Central California – is by no means a factory farm. It raises grass fed, pastured animals, and it leases out land to organic spinach farmers. These were animals eating their natural diets in plenty of open rangeland, and the ranchers were handling their meat safely (there was no contaminated meat, for example), but the bacteria was still present. The bacteria will always be around in some form or another, because it isn’t harmful to the animal. The problems (for us) arise when we collectivize – when we raise huge numbers of cattle alongside leafy greens and chickens and apples, all using the same water source and, in some cases, the same food source. And they magnify when we emphasize speed over safety, quick money over proven quality. When time is of the essence, mistakes will be made and shortcuts will be taken. Occasionally, people will get sick, or even die.
Grok would probably say that the problem is with agriculture itself, but the fact remains that we’re pretty much stuck with relying on agriculture for our food. That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to rely on Big Agra for everything. If we were to focus on the smaller, family farms that still take pride in their products, that can actually take the time to properly slaughter and package meat and ensure that cross-contamination is avoided, we’d be taking a huge step toward avoiding harmful E. coli altogether and would be reducing the chances of a wide scale problem. Visit your local farmers’ market and talk to the meat dealers. Get to know your food and where it comes from. When you do take home some meat or veggies, be safe. I can’t recommend heating your steak until it’s leather as per the government recommendations, but you might want to cook factory farmed meat a little longer if that’s all you can get. Wash your veggies, especially non-organics from the supermarket. And by all means, stay away from cookie dough!