Germany’s E. coli: Time to Reach Another Level of Awareness… and Indict

July 15, 2011 at 7:04 AM

The recent outbreak of E. coli in Germany caused massive confusion, hundreds of millions of dollars lost in the economy of numerous EU countries, at least 30 deaths and over 3,000 individuals to become ill. Every media source reported the story in the same fashion—that bean sprouts produced by an organic farm in Lower Saxony were responsible. Now the world has come to the understanding that bean sprouts caused this outbreak. However, there is a problem with this because bean sprouts didn’t cause the outbreak. In fact, no vegetable, fruit, nut, or any plant could ever be the primary cause of E. coli outbreaks because this pathogen comes from animals—specifically cattle in this case, as it is with all other recent cases of E. coli occurrences.

As I was ready to draft a blog about this issue and thereby assist the media by providing them with a more accurate view, I found the following article written in June by Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale Research Center, titled “Blame the Meat, Not the Sprouts.”

On first glance, I thought how wonderful it was to have someone expose the real culprit in this story. But after reading his article I realized there is another level of awareness that needs to be achieved. So my blog today is not about how the media continues to misrepresent foodborne illnesses, it is more about how very far off the mark we are as a society, with interpretation of our delusionary “need” to eat animals. The reason I am using Dr. Katz’ article as an example is because here you have a caring, intelligent author and medical practitioner with a rather large audience who brings to the forefront the real culprit of this recent E. coli story. But, at the same time, Dr. Katz also brings to the forefront the misconception that this outbreak and other similar woes are issues that have their roots in industrialized farming (CAFOs or factory farms). As you finish reading his article, you will walk away with the understanding that E. coli originated from cattle, not bean sprouts, but also feel quite comfortable continuing to eat meat—as long as it is not from factory farms. That’s a problem. So we need a clearer perspective.

My difficulty with this article can be summarized with the remark Dr. Katz makes near the end of the article where he states, “I am not intending to indict meat consumption…we have always included meat in our diet…we must concede it is an appetite for large quantities of meat derived from abused, drugged mass slaughtered cows that is responsible for E. coli 0157H7…” That is the wrong message. Actually, we DO need to indict meat consumption for many reasons and not just meat derived from factory farms. All meat consumption.

And, regarding the comment that “we have always included meat in our diet…” I have found habit to be an interesting form of justification. For more than 2,500 years we had used blood letting as an approach to treat just about every known ailment. Does that mean we should still slice our forearms to cure an infection? Our modern society has become fairly adept at evolving from other forms of barbaric and archaic practices, discovered now to be unhealthy—it’s time we do the same with eating animals.

Let’s first look more closely at the E. coli and contamination issue, and then bring it into better focus by adding this as a component to the much larger picture of our demand to eat animals.

Very few would dispute the assumption that there is less potential for the development and spread of disease-causing pathogens in pasture fed operations than with factory farms. However, E. coli (including 0157:H7), Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other disease-causing pathogens are found naturally on and in all animals that we raise and kill to eat—it doesn’t matter whether they are grass-fed or not. Cattle specialist Dr. Stephen Hammack at the Dept. of Animal Science, Texas A&M University sums up the findings of numerous researchers with his statement, “there are no differences in intestinal levels of E. coli 0157:H7 between organic grass-fed cattle and factory farmed grain fed cattle.” As a consumer, you have a risk of contracting E. coli from eating any type of meat from cattle—grass fed or not. Similarly with eggs, since Salmonella is carried naturally in the chicken’s body and transferred to, or through, the shell as the egg is being laid. Salmonella causes nearly 2 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. per year and over 80% of these are directly related to egg consumption. Salmonella are found in cage free, free-range chickens and organic eggs also, since it is naturally occurring in all chickens. Campylobacter is another organism found naturally in all healthy poultry, pigs, and cattle.  In a 2011 report,  the CDC estimated Campylobacter to be responsible for 845,000 illnesses, 8,400 hospitalizations, and 76 deaths in the U.S. each year. Whether pasture fed or not, improper handling and undercooked beef, pork, and poultry are sources of contamination and subsequent illness. Based on CDC, USDA, and independent research reports, the Consumers Union estimated that up to 88% of all chicken carcasses were contaminated and concluded, “Any poultry—chicken, turkey, duck, goose, game fowl and its juices—may contain Campylobacter, including organic and “free range” products. Other identified vehicles include milk, and meats such as beef, pork, shellfish, and eggs.” It is not a matter of “abused, drugged or factory farmed cows” as Dr. Katz states—E. coli and many other types of disease-causing organisms can be contracted from all animals raised, slaughtered and eaten by humans.

Now let’s discuss how this relates to the larger picture. Although the article by Dr. Katz was intended to focus on the source of outbreak of E. coli in Germany, it clearly gave the reader the false sense that CAFOs or factory farms are the primary problem and if we move away from those entities, meat consumption can continue as he states: “…feed animals are raised as an industrial commodity, rather than as creatures…their natural diets are disregarded” and “we, and our resultant health, not only are what we eat, we are to some extent what we feed what we eat.”

The difficulty I have with this is, that even if cattle and other livestock are “raised as creatures” without being “an industrial commodity”, the end result will be further perpetuation of global depletion of our planet’s resources and our own health. The continued eating of any animal, grass-fed or not, and E. coli or not, will contribute to our national health crises, increasing the risk of all four of the leading cause of illness in the U.S. (coronary heart disease, malignancies, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes) as well as the five leading causes of cancer (lung, colon, breast, pancreatic, and prostate). This has nothing to do with the animal being “an industrial commodity. “ It has everything to do with the fact that all animal products have saturated fat, cholesterol, and type of protein implicated in all those disease states and not enough nutrients, phytonutrients, fiber, or antiangiogenic substances that can only be found in plant-based foods. Regarding global depletion of our planet’s resources, only concentrated pollution may be improved with a move away from factory farms. All other areas of global depletion remain—continuation of greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity issues, depletion of land due to agricultural land use inefficiencies, world hunger, massive loss of biodiversity (loss of other species on earth), and of course devastation of our oceans and fish species.  Additionally, if cattle and other livestock were raised “as creatures” instead of “a commodity”, then it would make even less sense for us to slaughter them by the tens of billions—essentially the willing global participation in the unnecessary killing of over 133,000 lives per minute. Again, choosing to eat animals is much more of an issue than simply stating that “cattle eating grasses have a healthy gastrointestinal tract that is not conducive to the growth of this particular E. coli germ” as pointed out by Dr. Katz. This is misleading to the public who need to hear that eating cattle is the problem— not what the cattle eat.

Finally, instead of the audience hearing that “the mutant germs in our food have everything to do with how we raise and feed the animals by which we feed ourselves”, they need to hear that the mutant germs in our food have everything to do with the fact that we eat animals. Nothing more, nothing less.

And this is similar with all other areas of global depletion that impact our planet’s health where the issue is not HOW we raise animals to eat or HOW we massively extract them out of our oceans—rather, it is an issue that we do it at all. On one hand, Dr. Katz has made a wonderful point about the origin of this E. coli pathogen in Germany. For that, he is to be applauded. However, the real story, with the entire picture being painted, needs to be heard. We all need to raise our awareness to the next level, stop blaming factory farms and start blaming the fact that we eat animals. Make the indictment. Make a difference.

More perspectives regarding the influences surrounding our food choices can be found in Comfortably Unaware.

Category: food choice

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