In today’s New York Times. Nina Planck writes a good article about the E.coli outbreak due to eating raw spinach from California. She makes some excellent points, worth discussing here.
Of course, everyone wonders how a bacteria associated with the fecal matter of cows contaminated spinach farms. Speculation has grown that contaminated water is the cause, and the experts are debating whether the water came from a contaminated irrigation source or the flooding of a contaminated river.
OK, fair enough. However, Planck wonders where the bacteria came from in the first place, noting that humans’ stomach acid is normally strong enough to kill E. coli invaders from say, a potato salad gone terribly wrong.
But the villain in this outbreak, E. coli O157:H7, is far scarier, at least for humans. Your stomach juices are not strong enough to kill this acid-loving bacterium, which is why it’s more likely than other members of the E. coli family to produce abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.
Then Planck drops her bomb:
Where does this particularly virulent strain come from? It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new — that is, recent in the history of animal diets — biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms. It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms. (Emphasis mine.)
You know where I’m going with this now, right?
Planck says that studies have shown that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry this particular strain of E. coli, and for the most part, the food safety measure do their job of keeping fecal matter out of our food supply. The same study provided a solution:
When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.
This is good news. In a week, we could choke O157 from its favorite home — even if beef cattle were switched to a forage diet just seven days before slaughter, it would greatly reduce cross-contamination by manure of, say, hamburger in meat-packing plants. Such a measure might have prevented the E. coli outbreak that plagued the Jack in the Box fast food chain in 1993.
However, that doesn’t stop the bacteria from entering groundwater via cattle feedlots. It would take a lot more than a week to reduce contamination of the water supply.
The United States Department of Agriculture does recognize the threat from these huge lagoons of waste, and so pays 75 percent of the cost for a confinement cattle farmer to make manure pits watertight, either by lining them with concrete or building them above ground. But taxpayers are financing a policy that only treats the symptom, not the disease, and at great expense. There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle. (Emphasis mine.)
I bet you think that I’m going to launch into a foamy diatribe against corporate farmers, don’t you?! Nope, I’m not going to say anything at all about their cruel, inhumane, and frankly, DISGUSTING cattle raising practices. (Have any of you ever driven through California’s Salinas Valley? The stench is unbearable.)
Nope, not goin’ there. No foam here at all. I’m only going to say that industrial cattle farms need to change their feeding habits. It’s very simple. Industrial “farmers” should stop feeding grain to cattle and feed them a more natural diet.
Wanna make a guess why they won’t? I’ll give you a hint: the answer begins with $.
Image courtesy of the USDA Regional IMP Centers Information System.