Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that an E. coli outbreak (epicenter: Germany) has resulted in illness and death, along with an increased distrust of fresh produce. In what played out like a suspense movie, German epidemiologists initially traced the source of the problem from cucumbers to humans, before concluding that sprouts were the true culprit. (Update: there’s still uncertainty as to how the sprouts were contaminated.)
Fortunately, we can be quite confident that the produce in American grocery stores is not tainted this time around. It’s unlikely that we would be importing produce from Europe at all this time of year, let alone sprouts from Germany. But how can we prepare for next time?
The first point to keep in mind is that eating does not come without risks. It would be impossible to guarantee the prevention of all food-borne illness. Some of us take these risks knowingly. Others are completely unaware of why food can be deadly, and are therefore unable to rationally address outbreaks when they do occur. An irrational reaction to the outbreak would be to completely remove produce from your diet (potentially dismantling the produce industry of an entire Western European nation).
That said, it is very possible to reduce the risk of contracting food-borne illness. Doing so requires a basic understanding of how to prevent bacterial growth. Some simple actions are on us: wash fresh produce, cook meat to recommended temperatures, and avoid high-risk foods if you are pregnant/immunocompromised/elderly/under the age of 6. Beyond taking these precautions though, we have little choice but to trust that our food system is designed in a way that minimizes exposure to E. coli, salmonella, and the other pathogens that can wreak havoc on our bodies. For the most part, it is; statistically, food-borne illness is not as big a public health issue as cancer or heart disease. But, there are signs that the system supplying our food is becoming increasingly difficult to manage when it comes to microbial contamination. According to Mark Bittman:
Benign E. coli are everywhere, [but] if you were able to trace back far enough, their reservoir is most likely the gut of mammal: a goat, a sheep, a deer, even a majestic elk or a dog. They’re most often associated with cows…
What is known is that if you keep STEC [E. coli] out of beef you partially solve the problem, and if you keep manure off other foods you partially solve the problem, too. It isn’t easy, and it’s never going to be foolproof, but these are the steps to take. If you’re the cattle industry, you’d rather blame the whole thing on sprouts that were “somehow” contaminated. (Ban sprouts! No one really likes them anyway.) But blaming the sprouts is like blaming your nose for a virus-containing sneeze: That STEC [E. coli] came from somewhere, and in its history is an animal’s gut.
Dr. David Katz takes the discussion a step further by asking us to consider how our demand for meat may be contributing to a system that leads to increased food-borne illness:
Because we eat quite a lot of meat, quite a lot of meat must be produced. Large-volume meat production means large farms, large herds, and large, centralized, highly efficient processing plants. At best, this all translates into relative neglect of any individual steer, and a relative inability to inspect the quality of every steak. At worst, it offers reminders of the “jungle” to which Upton Sinclair introduced us all at the turn of the 20th century. And it means feed animals are raised as an industrial commodity, rather than as creatures. Their natural diets are disregarded, and they are fed whatever leads to the fastest growth and greatest profit. The origins of E. coli 0157H7 are not mysterious; they relate to changes in the feed of cattle.
Just to clarify, this is by no means an indictment against eating meat. If anything, it should prompt us to think more about how we protect our food supply. Many food safety experts suggest irradiation as a potential option for safeguarding our food. Irradiation is not without its critics though, and as infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Osterholm points out, “Irradiation isn’t an excuse for dirty produce. It’s far better to prevent contamination on the farm or in the processing plant than to try to get rid of it later.” If we are truly keen on preventing outbreaks like the current one in Germany, we should focus on the root of the problem: see beyond the sprouts.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all this is seen in Washington D.C. You’d think that the recent events in Europe would compel Congress to follow through on the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act passed last year. However, the House of Representatives just voted to lower the President’s budget for food safety measures. The allocation now sits at $750 million, which is not only below what the President asked for, but $87 million less than what the Food and Drug Administration was given last year. That means the FDA will probably be doing less to oversee our food supply, leaving cracks for more outbreak-inducing bacteria to slip through.