Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Green Foods of Death

Once again terrorists have somehow managed to cross our national borders, drop their pants and shit on our vegetables, thus contaminating the American food supply with e. coli. A few Americans died this summer from infected spinach, then it was lettuce making people sick for awhile, and now it’s green onions from Taco Bell.

In all cases, some of the contaminated vegetables were consumed right here in my own state of Connecticut, though I was never in any danger since the only green food I eat is Granny Smith apples. Those are less likely to be shat upon since they grow on trees rather than the ground.

I’m kidding about the terrorist poop, of course. At least I think I am. The story last time blamed the e. coli on contaminated water used to irrigate the crops; I figure it’ll be something similar this time around, too. But here's what I can't figure out: is e. coli more common these days than it used to be, or is it just that the media reports it more often?

12 Comments:

Anonymous Shanta...er, Santa said...

And what would you like for Christmas, little girl? How about a nice, new, shiny sit-and-shit? Or should that be sat and shat? Sat and crapped? ;-)

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Eric the .5b said...

And of course, I just had dinner from Taco Bell a few hours ago...Oh, well.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

But here's what I can't figure out: is e. coli more common these days than it used to be, or is it just that the media reports it more often?

That's a good question. I would think that it has more to do with reporting frequency, myself, but I don't have any data to support that theory. I recall the Jack in the Box outbreak back in the..er.. early 90's? I don't recall the exact timeframe. For me, that was the first public E Coli deaths in memory, but I had just left Washington St to go to college, so I paid more attention than most on the east coast.

That said, I'm sure back in the earlier century you'd have outbreaks that were not reported anywhere.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people are more likely to report it. Also, when I was a kid, they actually gave us home ec classes where we learned useful food safety things like how to select produce and meats, wash and store them, and how long we could keep them. If I worked at Taco Bell and I was in charge of chopping green onions, every onion would have the outer layer stripped and been washed, and then I'd get fired for being slow and wasteful, but at least I wouldn't have poisoned anyone.

5:45 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Many, many years ago at the University of Washington, I remember a whack-o liberal student group protesting the use of e. coli in genetic mutation experiments. They were saying that a more virulent form of e. coli might be created and accidentally released causing harm to humans.

Hmm? Maybe they were right.

9:50 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

They call it cole slaw.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Taylor W. Buley said...

Unfortunatley, it is the nature of news to be sensationalist.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Eddy said...

I think in the case of the apple, it is a question of being shat upon by what... birds, highly probable... cattle, not so much. In the end, you are probably shit out of luck on that front. Do birds shit bad e. coli or good e. coli?
Wouldn't irradiated food solve this problem?

2:24 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

As I recall, E. coli is one of the most common bacteria. All of us (in fact, all mammals) have them in our gut. They are necessary for digestion.

The problem arises when you get a "bad" (or just different) strain. First, they fight it out in your gut for territorial domination. If the new boys are human-compatible, you just get a case of the runs durring the fight (Montezuma's Revenge). If the new strain is actually hostile, you get "food poisoning".

nostar said...
Many, many years ago at the University of Washington, I remember a whack-o liberal student group protesting the use of e. coli in genetic mutation experiments. They were saying that a more virulent form of e. coli might be created and accidentally released causing harm to humans.

Given the incredibly widespread nature of E. coli, and their tendency to take up residence in mammalian guts, this really isn't such a "whack-o" worry. The "benign" forms are necessary for human survival, and have shown a distressing vulnerability to being replaced with non-benign forms. Our immune system actively encourages their growth in the intestines. The environment at large is extremely friendly to E. coli.

I personally think it is extremely irresponsible to use such a widespread and critical bacteria for genetic experiments. If they do "get loose" (and we've even seen such well-guarded stuff as Smallpox get out of laboratories), there are few or no natural controls, and they have a very demonstrable affinity for human infestation.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From wikipedia:

Relationship to industrial agriculture

This modern dairy farm exhibits features often cited as indicative of an "industrial farm", with many animals confined in a structure providing food, water, ventilation, and specific resting spaces all designed to maximize production.

Several authors and scientists have pointed out the link between E.coli contaminations in food and industrial scale meat and dairy farms. The most recent E. coli outbreak has once again demonstrated this link because the source of this E. coli was traced back to "a large ranch in the Salinas Valley that has a beef cattle operation" about a half-mile from the spinach fields where spinach became contaminated.[5]

The E. coli samples were found in a water sample in a creek, in the gastrointestinal tract of a wild boar on the property, and from cattle fecal specimens. None of the nine positive matches came from a nearby spinach field that was the source of the contaminated produce. That leaves one significant unanswered question: How did the E. coli get from the ranch to the spinach field? The answer may be the wild boars. "Animals, wildlife and water were in close proximity to the field," Reilly said. "We have evidence for fences torn down, wildlife going into the actual spinach fields themselves. That's where the investigation is centered right now. There's clear evidence that the pig population has access and goes onto the fields. http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/e__coli_o154_h7_and_spinach.htm

There are several variants of E. coli and they can be found in a healthy human gut, but the deadly strain, O157:H7, was virtually unheard of until the 1980s. It is believed that this strain evolved in the digestive system of "grain fed" cattle on large industrial farms.[6] On these farms, grain is used as cattle feed because it is nutrient-packed and increases efficiency. A side effect of feeding grain to cattle is that it increases the acidity of their stomach—and it is in this acidic gut that the deadly O157:H7 thrives.

Another reason why the strain was not known before the 1980s was that only then did better technology became available to identify bacteria. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=130684 As a single gram of rich, undisturbed soil may contain as many as 5,000 different species of bacteria (more bacterial species even than all those that have been described by science), it is not surprising that most of these have not been categorized yet.

In 2003, an article in the Journal of Dairy Science found that between 30 and 80 percent of cattle carry E. coli O157:H7.[7] In that same journal article, a quick fix was pointed out: Cows that are switched from a "grain" diet to a "forage" diet saw, within 5 days, a 1,000-fold decrease in the abundance of strain O157.[8]

However, there is considerable debate on this point. Some studies, for example, indicate that the presence of the bacterium in the livestock is much lower than otherwise reported. A 2002 USDA NAHMS study found that 38.5% of dairy farms had at least one cow that was culture [+] when sampled, but only 4.3% of individual cows were shedding the organism. Indeed, some papers state the opposite of the Journal of Dairy Science, finding half as little of the strain in manure from animals fed by corn instead of barley. (FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2005 Nov 1;252(1):25-33/ J Food Prot. 2000 Nov;63(11):1467-74/ J Food Prot. 2004 Apr;67(4):666-71)

More likely, rather than change the way cattle are fed or raised on industrial farms there will instead be pressure to find technological solutions like food irradiation, plans for HACCP, or simply cooking burgers longer. Suggestions like this have led some experts, like Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC-Berkeley, Michael Pollan, to suggest that "All of these solutions treat E. coli O157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture."

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I'll bet anything that E. Coli in food is far less common than it used to be. Oh, it probably has waxed and waned in recent years, for all I know it may be worse right now, but given the move away from manure to industrial fertilizers, and the general improvements in sanitation, I think it's safe to say that it's far less common today than it was a couple generations ago.

The rarity is probably the very reason that we hear about it. Dog bites man vs. man bites dog, etc.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Kitty said...

Anonymous is right, the problem is not E. coli in general, which is necessary for us to digest quite a number of things, but the strain that grows in the guts of grain-fed cows in giant industrial farms. (My own pet paranoia is antibiotic-resistant bugs so I've read a lot about this. In one year my son, me, and my father all contracted resistant infections. Dad's nearly killed him; he was only saved by having surgery. Believe me, no fun at all.)

7:54 PM  

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