By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Could it be manure, again?
If the E. coli outbreak in Europe turns out to have come, ultimately, from infected manure/fertilizer that contaminated vegetable crops, it will be little surprise.
E. coli (Escherichia coli) is found in the digestive systems of mammals, and it has become particularly virulent in cows fattened on corn, as most cattle are these days. Few cattle are fed exclusively on the grass that nature intended for ruminants, and few are raised without being routinely dosed with antibiotics. This insistence on feeding cows something they’re not equipped to digest, coupled with the excessive overuse of antibiotics, has created a food roulette that could be behind the European food illnesses.
I’m out on a limb here, because we don’t yet know the source of the contaminated food. But many previous outbreaks have pointed that way.
Scientists have documented these connections for more than a decade. Yet, the livestock industry has persisted in “finishing” beef with grain to fatten the animals quickly and produce tender, marbled meat. Antibiotics also have become an integral element in raising cows in the accelerated industrial system. The drugs are used to keep the animals alive until slaughter (because eating corn sickens them) and again, to hasten their growth.
This leads cattle, among other livestock such as pigs treated similarly, to excrete deadly varieties of E. coli that are resistant to antibiotics.
Even in the 1990s, researchers were aware of the fact that cows are excellent E. coli carriers, especially when fed corn. Later on, after numerous outbreaks of E coli infections involving hamburger, the industry developed a unique, absurd solution: treating hamburger with a sanitizing ammonia spray to kill the bacteria.
But back in 1998, Cornell University researchers proposed a different solution to the problem. Apparently resigned to the fact that cows would continue to be abused by the industrial food system, they offered that the meat produced could at least be made a bit safer by feeding the animals some hay in their final days.
Hay, the animals’ natural grass food, would help them clear their guts of toxic E. coli. The university team reported this as an exciting development that would provide a “workable solution to the food-safety problem.”
“Most bacteria are killed by the acid of stomach juice, but E. coli from grain-fed cattle are resistant to strong acids,” said research team member James B. Russell, a USDA microbiologist and faculty member of the Cornell Section of Microbiology. “When people eat foods contaminated with acid-resistant E. coli — including pathogenic strains like O157:H7 — the chance of getting sick increases.”
“By feeding hay to cattle for about five days before slaughter, the number of acid-resistant E. coli can be dramatically reduced,” the Cornell team reported in a university article.
Bless them. These scientists found a way to circumvent the sneaky tendency of E. coli to survive in grain-fed animals and also the gastric acids of humans, allowing the bacteria to attack in its favored territory, the intestines.
Of course, feeding cattle hay as their last meal couldn’t strip the acid-resistance of the E. coli in the cows’ excrement that had been collected or sprayed about while the cattle were still grain fed. (More clarity on that in a moment.)
Meanwhile, the antibiotics that were becoming a standard feature of livestock production, with animals being fed a low-dose to both fight illness and speed their growth, raised the ante.
Antibiotics, like the corn feed, altered the E. coli produced by the cattle in modern feeding settings. In this case it added a level of potency to the bacteria. So now the cows were not just E. coli production machines, they were churning out antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria — leaving humans especially vulnerable to serious illness.
An E coli infection that might have once been a survivable, day- or two-long food poisoning episode, had been transformed into a deadly illness.
The unlucky person who ingests the E. coli “superbug” – often identified as some variation of the 0157 strain – can find themselves at the hospital, bereft of the usual toolkit of antibiotics.
Sadly, at least 18 of those affected by the outbreak that began in Hamburg, Germany several days ago have lost their lives. An estimated 50o of nearly 2,000 affected remain seriously ill; many are on dialysis because the bacteria has savaged their kidneys. It is being called the deadliest E.coli outbreak ever, as more victims surface across Europe, even in the United Kingdom.
Investigators are still looking for the cause of the food-borne illnesses. They think the germs came from infected tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce. That’s ironic, because if more people worldwide relied on produce and grains as the staples of their diet, then perhaps the meat operations that have been churning out E. coli germs would not be running on hyper-drive.
I’ll hold the diatribe on a livestock connection until we know more. There are many ways, beyond fertilization that produce could become contaminated, but some of these also could involve cross-contamination with animal products.
This Europe-wide outbreak, though far more severe, could mimic that of the spinach scare in the U.S. in 2006 which sickened 205 people and killed three.
That outbreak was traced to improper drainage from a livestock operation that had apparently infected the spinach field at the heart of the calamity. The Food and Drug Administration didn’t pin the source down completely, but cited “surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife” that drained into the field as the likely cause of the contamination in its final report.
Manure from modern cattle feeding operations often is used as fertilizer. In a traditional farm setting, with healthy animals, this would be a good thing. Manure is rich in nitrogen and replenishes the soil. It may contain a small amount of E. coli, but without the antibiotics and the forced corn feedings it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous.
Envision a farm-to-market scenario with pastured, grass-fed, antibiotic-free animals (which produce healthier, leaner meat anyway) and you’ve flushed much of the risk from the system.
Make that an Organic-certified operation and you’ve taken another giant step in favor of safer food. Organic farmers must follow stricter guidelines about the use of manure on food crops, according to the Organic Trade Association.
“Raw animal manure [which could contain pathogens] must be composted if it is to be applied to land used for a crop intended for human consumption, unless it is applied to the land at least 120 days prior to harvest if the edible part crops come in contact with soil, and at least 90 days prior to harvest of edible parts that do not come into contact with soil. OFPA further recommends a longer period if soil or other conditions warrant. (The rules mean that the E.coli would not survive the prescribed composting time.)
“No other agricultural regulation in the United States imposes such strict control on the use of manure,” the OTA reports in its FAQ on manure and food crops.
Contrast that with the current practices that have evolved to serve our ever-increasing demand for meat (that doesn’t cost too much) and you’ll see why we’re knee-deep in it.
Toxic meat, toxic fertilizer, toxic soil, toxic vegetables. We’re creating not just a catchment for a deadly bacteria, but a spawning ground where illness lies in wait.
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