Thursday, September 21, 2006

On the Trail of e.Coli

Last week the news of a food borne outbreak of E.coli led to the recall of bagged spinach across the nation. It was speculated that the source of contamination was fecal matter, most likely from animal manure used as fertilizer.

In the Fox News article, Robert Brackett, the director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition said that E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is spread through contamination by fecal material. He continued to add that the use of manure as a fertilizer for produce typically consumed raw, such as spinach, is not in keeping with good agricultural practices. in the world did we ever survive before chemical fertilizers?

As the investigation has progressed, a more likely source of contamination has been identified - the water used to irrigate fields, not the fertilizer used to nourish soil and crops. As the LA Times reported today, "Many creeks and streams near the region's spinach fields, including the Salinas River, Gabilan Creek, Towne Creek, Tembladero Slough and Old Salinas River Estuary, are known to be carriers of the E. coli strain implicated in the food poisonings...Although the growers do not draw water from creeks to irrigate their fields, their crops could be tainted by runoff from nearby livestock operations or Central Coast urban areas."

And how about this scary item, "Only one waterway in the lower Salinas River watershed does not violate federal E. coli standards, and it is in a state park, surrounded by natural land. Some waterways are so contaminated they contain 12,000 or more organisms per 100 milliliters of water — 30 times the Environmental Protection Agency's standard. Ingesting just a few organisms can make a person sick."

But experts at the USDA Agricultural Research Service aren't sure irrigation of crops is to blame. "These outbreaks make it appear that the produce was contaminated before harvest. It's a strong suspicion by everyone. So some of the things the investigators will look for is whether certain fields flooded and the quality of the irrigation water used, the location of farms near where animals may be grazing, and whether any wildlife may frequent certain farms," said Robert Mandrell of the USDA.

An interesting Op-Ed, penned by Nina Planck in the New York Times took no prisoners today.

Her view is the contamination "probably has little do with the folks who grow and package your greens. The detective trail ultimately leads back to a seemingly unrelated food industry — beef and dairy cattle."But not just any cattle and livestock farmers, but those who practice what is known as "factory farming" or, more accurately feedlot feeding practices.

Ms. Planck accurately assesses the situation from the view that e.Coli is indeed abundant in the digestive system of healthy cattle and humans, but when fed an unnatural diet - that is fed grain - the balance of acids in the digestive tract of the cow changes to allow the strain in question, E. coli O157:H7, thrive and be a threat because it is reistant to the acidity of the human digestive tract when present in foods.

As she noted, "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."

Which just confirms my suspicion that when we alter the natural diet of animals, at some point it will come back to haunt us, one way or another. It's one reason why I choose to support local farms and ranches practicing sustainable methods while allowing their animals to graze and forage on their natural diet.


  1. Anonymous4:24 PM

    Great article. I havent seen that in the news.

    Jack hartmann

  2. I suppose no one has ever heard of washing your food before you cook or eat it!