Spinacia oleracea

On my fruitless quest for spinach on Saturday, I pondered the Escherichia coli outbreak tied to spinach, and the way in which we handle disease outbreaks in the United States. I also thought about industrial agriculture, and the ripple effect that occurs when we take plants and animals drastically away from their natural state. If nothing else, I hope this recent outbreak is sending a clear message that we need to reconsider the ways in which we produce, handle, and package food.

Laurie Garett wrote in The Coming Plague that “humanity will have to change its perspective on its place in Earth’s ecology if the species hopes to stave off or survive the next plague.”

Microbes, you see, are resiliant things. They’re been around a lot longer than we have, and they have evolved supernaturally fast methods of adaptation to new environments. This is bad enough, but in many ways we humans of the first world are actually helping them along: with the widespread and unregulated use of antibiotics in cattle, by crowding together in dense urban areas, by farming industrially, by living the way that we do. Escherichia coli, in particular, is quite the unique bacteria.

The first thing to know about it is that all of us carry it. Right now, billions of them are swimming about in your colon, helping you to digest and process food. All animals carry along these bacterial helpers along with other intestinal flora. It’s when Escherichia coli strains jump between species that we begin to see issues.

One of the most virulent Escherichia coli strains, for humans, is O157:H7. It first came to the attention of humans in 1982, and it’s been popping up at ever greater frequency ever since. The roots of 0157:H7 are quite interesting, and I note that they aren’t being very thoroughly covered in the media sensationalism over the Escherichia coli outbreak. Indeed, many news sources are being purposefully vague about the origins of this particularly nasty strain. This is a great pity, because 0157:H7 kills, and it’s of human origin, and I suspect that if consumers fully understood this that something might actually be done about it.

0157:H7 came about by taking advantage of a new, human generated biological niche–the highly acidic stomachs of cows.

Cow stomachs are not meant to be acidic. Indeed, a number of health problems can be traced back to this acidity, and Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that it’s a good thing we slaughter cows early, because otherwise they’d die from the unusual level of acid in their stomachs. In fact, cows generally have a neutral pH. But grain-fed cows develop unnaturally acidic stomachs in an effort to process this food. Consequently, the coliform bacteria (like Escherichia coli) in their intestines evolve to deal with the higher level of acid–since these cows are heavily medicated, the bacteria also develop antibiotic resistance. Every time a cow poops, and that poop enters the water supply, humans can get sick. When cows are slaughtered and the meat isn’t treated with care–humans can get sick.

The FDA and USDA tell us to cook our meat thoroughly to avoid contamination, and they tell us to wash everything intensively. Washing may not actually have an effect, but it sure makes us feel better! They also spend billions of dollars on abatement programs, paying farmers to line manure pools to prevent them from leaking.

But there’s a simpler solution: let cows eat grass, which they’re meant to eat anyway. Indeed, a week of a proper grass diet can eliminate 0157:H7. Stop feeding cows antibiotics and breeding super-bacteria. Let cows live in clean, healthy environments so that their hides aren’t covered in bacteria laden shit. Slaughter livestock with care and respect, taking precautions at each step of the way to avoid contamination.

Why are people getting sick from spinach? Because manure gets used as fertilizer, and that manure might carry Escherichia coli. Organic standards include heavier use of compost, and aged manure in which most bacteria are already dead, so don’t go pointing the finger at organic agriculture. Because cows make up a big portion of the population in California, and those cows shit in the waterways which irrigate the spinach, along with a huge amount of other types of produce–it happened to be spinach this time, that’s all. Because thanks to the commercialization of farming, a small amount of tainted spinach can contaminate 70% of the national supply when it enters the processing plant. This doesn’t just apply to spinach, but to any salad green.

There’s no way to completely sterilize the food supply.

You want to avoid Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other of our microbial pals? Don’t eat.

If you’d like to reasonably reduce your risk of food borne illness, use your common sense:

  • Eat locally produced food. Meet your farmer. Tour the places where your food comes from. Eating organic (or beyond organic) is a good way to avoid a lot of risk factors for food-borne illness, like excessive antibiotic use, raw manure fertilizer, and the like.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and other animal products and vegetables, if you’re a meat eater. Use wood (which has naturally resistant properties) or glass–not plastic, which becomes useless in terms of disease resistance as soon as it’s scored with a knife.
  • Wash all your produce well before eating.
  • Wash yourself–make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap before handling and eating food.
  • Eat local animal products, especially–don’t consume animal products that result from factory farming. Eat grass fed beef and truly free range eggs.
  • Make sure your fridge is being kept at the proper temperature, and dispose of food which feels “off” to you.
  • Eat at restaurants which also use locally produced food, not corporate chains. In addition to the various ethnical issues which surround corporate food, these chains process food in huge batches coming from numerous places, meaning that a sliver of contamination can spread broadly across the food supply.
  • Eat spicy. I’ve travelled around the world and eaten in some scummy places and never gotten foodborne illness, because I eat foods prepared fresh, locally, with a hell of a lot of peppers. I’m not sure if there’s a scientific link here or any kind of solid evidence, but it’s a family tradition.
  • Lobby for reforms in the way our food is grown, handled, and processed.
  • Use antibiotics and other like medications responsibly–only if you actually need them, and make sure to follow the full course all the way through, even if you begin to feel better.
  • Do your best to find a glass abattoir, because it’s time for transparency when it comes to your food.
  • Don’t let fearmongering influence your stomach.

The spinach fiasco has been eye-opening in a lot of ways, and alas most Americans probably won’t take any actual lessons from it. (My lesson: maintain a small garden, somewhere, anywhere, so that when my food supplies are under threat I have a backup.) This is an outbreak of our own making, and given the growing density of the human population and our continuing refusal to behave responsibly because in the short term, it costs more, we can expect to see epidemics like this on the rise. Outbreaks like this are only going to get more virulent and more frequent until we act–and the longer the wait, the more secure the microbes will be.

[Escherichia coli]