Posts Tagged ‘E. Coli

Chipotle’s Food Safety Problem

» November 12th, 2015

 

If your brand has anything to do with food, the last place you want it to appear in is the Food Poison Journal. But that’s exactly where the Chipotle Mexican Grill recently found itself, prominently placed in a headline confirming its most recentE. coli outbreak.

Thirty-nine people in Washington and Oregon came down with E. coli O26 after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in late October. Twelve were hospitalized. The source of the outbreak has yet to be verified, but experts suspect tomatoes. Chipotle shuttered 43 stores and tossed all remaining ingredients into the trash, patting itself on the back for its “abundance of caution.”

The problem with this response, though, is that Chipotle—whose defining creed is “food with integrity”—has assured consumers that an “abundance of caution” was integral to its mission from the start. Chipotle’s much-touted cautionary approach has underscored such definitive moves as banning genetically modified organisms and supporting locally sourced produce. Thus the “fast casual” alternative has been able to transform a burrito—as one of its advertisements proclaims—into a “food-culture changing cylinder of deliciousness.”

Read more here. 

The Amnesia-ville Horror

» June 12th, 2012

Pink Slime!

I’m sick and tired of hearing stories about the disgusting aspects of industrial animal agriculture. I know, I know. It’s important to broadcast these messages—pink slime!, E.Coli! cows eating chicken poop! And, I know, people need to hear the straight dope on factory farming. Still, these stories get on my nerves for at least two reasons.

First, they’re redundant, and their redundancy is alarming. It’s alarming not because the stories themselves are horrific (which they are), but because the muckrakers delivering these messages act as if they’re unearthing some deep dark secret and the consumers hearing the messages act as if it’s never been said before. It’s like we’re living in Amnesia-ville.

Folks! We’ve been bombarded with nauseating narratives about the evils of factory farming for over 40 years. The fact that we have not, as a collective gesture of consumer outrage, monkey wrenched these hellholes into oblivion speaks either to the human tendency to procrastinate or, worse, our pathological indifference.  At some point you have to wonder: are journalists hacking away at this door to no avail?

Well, they may be, as my second point of contention suggests: I despise the way that supposed food activists take these stories and cynically use them to justify a transition to small-scale animal agriculture. This one really galls me because, in making such a suggestion, the so-called activists are doing nothing more than feeding the monster they aim to starve. They fail to realize that all the monster needs to thrive is a cultural acceptance of eating animals. The activists, in their small-farm fetishization, do absolutely nothing to confront this pervasive acceptance. In fact, they only encourage it. In so doing, they encourage factory farming.

We’ll never beat the devil at his own game. Industrial agriculture is not in the least bit threatened when earnest “muckraking” journalists come on the radio or print long stories urging concerned consumers to avoid factory farmed meat in favor of “humanely raised” and “sustainably produced” options. To think the big guys are threatened is a joke. The factory farms will always ensure that the small fetishized farms are never anything more than boutique options for foodies, culinary libertarians, and pin-heads who peck away at their Mac’s in college town coffee shops (oops, that’s me).

The factory farms can ensure their dominance for two simple reasons: consolidation and scale. I don’t like this fact one bit, but it’s a fact—subsidies notwithstanding, it’s cheaper and quicker and more efficient to raise animals in concentrated conditions on a large scale. These measures lead to cheaper animals products and cheaper animal products will, as sure as gravity, lead to the mass consumption of cheap meat. Unless small-scale farms have a plan to upend the most basic principle of classical economics–not to mention human nature–their endorsement of eating animals will continue to be, however inadvertently–an endorsement of factory farming.  They will, of course, deny this.

And they will, of course, be deluding themselves. Worse, they’ll be harming animals. Indeed, their delusions are just as complicit in the senseless killing of billions of animals as are the factory farms they claim to hate so vehemently.  And that gets on my nerves. A lot.

 

Grass-Fed Sham: The Undercooked Science

» November 29th, 2011

Last year, Huntington Meat Packing Inc. recalled a whopping 864,000 pounds of beef thought to contain a particularly nasty strain of E. coli bacteria called O157:H7. Coming shortly after the recall of 248,000 pounds of beef by National Steak and Poultry on Christmas Eve 2009—and dozens of other scares over contaminated beef and pork—this news reminded consumers yet again that the mass production of meat is fraught with danger.

Consumers who still have an appetite for burgers and sirloins have been pushed toward alternative food sources. In particular, they’ve started to seek out more “wholesome” meat from animals raised in accordance with their “natural” inclinations and heritage. According to Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, there’s been a dramatic rise in demand for cattle reared on a pasture diet instead of an industrial feed lot. Grass-fed beef should account for 10 percent of America’s beef consumption overall by 2016, she says—a more than threefold increase from 2006.

The comparative health benefits of grass-fed beef shouldn’t be ignored. Scores of studies indicate that it’s higher in omega 3s and lower in saturated fat. But when it comes to E. coli O157:H7, the advantages of grass-fed beef aren’t so clear. In fact, exploring the connection between grass-fed beef and these dangerous bacteria offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster. Step back from it all and veganism starts to look like the best option.

Could grass-fed beef ever be afflicted with E. coli O157:H7? Not according to the conventional wisdom among culinary tastemakers. This idea rose to the top of the journalistic food chain in the fall of 2006, when food activist Nina Planck wrote about the bacteria strain on the op-ed page of the New York Times. At that time, people were getting sick from bad organic spinach, but the contamination seemed to have originated with herds of conventionally raised cattle that lived upstream. Not every animal excretes this nasty type of E. coli, she argued. “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.”

The Times speaks, the world listens. Planck’s appraisal of grain- vs. grass-fed beef was highlighted on the Web sites for the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for a Livable Future, Grist, and Culinate.com, among other enviro-foodie venues. A few months later, Hannah Wallace of Salon warned that “a cow’s corn diet can also make us sick” on account of the acidic environment it creates for bacteria. Even Michael Pollan, perhaps the most widely read food writer on the planet, explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 … was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle.” These animals, he added, “stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow’s rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7.”

For many consumers, the case was closed: To avoid E. coli O157:H7, just eat grass-fed beef.

But the scientific evidence tells a very different story. Planck’s assertion seems to be based on a 1998 report published in the journal Science. In this study, the authors fed three cows a variety of diets in order to ascertain how feed type influenced intestinal acidity in cows and, in turn, how intestinal acidity influenced the concentration of acid-resistant strains of E. coli. They hypothesized that these strains would be especially dangerous to humans, since they could survive the low-pH environment of the human stomach. It turned out that grain-fed cattle did indeed have a much more acidic stomach than those fed grass or hay. And sure enough, they had a million times more acid-resistant E. coli in their colons.

This appeared to be good news for grass-fed beef: Eliminate grain from a cow’s diet and you’ll keep its intestines from getting too acidic and spawning dangerous, acid-resistant bacteria. There was only one catch. The authors of the Science piece never specifically tested for E. coli O157:H7. Instead, they guessed that the pattern of O157:H7 growth and induction of acid-resistance would mirror that of E. coli strains that are always living in the colons of cattle. If this assertion were true, E. coli O157:H7 would reach dangerous levels only in gastrointestinal tracts of grain-fed cows.

But between 2000 and 2006, scientists began to take a closer look at the effect of diet on E. coli O157:H7 specifically. A different set of findings emerged to indicate that this particular strain did not, in fact, behave like other strains of E. coli found in cattle guts. Most importantly (in terms of consumer safety), scientists showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows. The effect postulated (and widely publicized) in the 1998 Science report—that grain-fed, acidic intestines induced the colonization of acid-resistant E. coli—did not apply to the very strain of bacteria that was triggering all the recalls.

What might explain this discrepancy? Scientists wondered whether there could be two subtypes of E. coli O157:H7 with varying degrees of acid-resistance. By that logic, the microbes from the grass-fed guts would be less resilient—and therefore less dangerous—than the ones that were growing up in the cows reared on grain. So they started running tests to find out.

In 2003, a research team from the University of Idaho reported no difference at all in the levels of acid resistance between E. coli O157:H7 from grass- and grain-fed cattle. (In both cases resistance was high.) Their conclusion stands in direct contrast to the broad claims about grain diets that have been made in the popular press since 2006. It must be that some other factor or factors were responsible for the development of E. coli O157:H7. 

We don’t yet know what these might be. But four studies, published between 2003 and 2005, have developed an intriguing hypothesis. Maybe, some reasoned, E. coli O157:H7 behaves differently from other strains because it develops in a different part of the cow’s intricate digestive system. Sure enough, O157:H7 turned out to have a strong tendency to congregate in the recto-anal junction, whereas most other E. coli tend to gather primarily in the colon. Given that, we might presume that the production of E. coli O157:H7 depends more on its unique location than on what its cow host happens to be eating.

The point in dredging up these studies—ones the media never covered—is not to play gotcha with advocates of grass-fed beef.  Instead, it’s a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be fatal.

When it comes to the intricacies of our food system—and especially the meat industry—what’s true one day can be less true the next. A case in point involves the final FDA report (PDF) on the source of the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that motivated Planck to write her seminal Times op-ed. Released in March 2007, it suggests that the spinach wasn’t contaminated by grain-fed, industrial cattle. Rather, the culprits were more likely to have been wild pigs or pastured (i.e., grass-fed) cattle—animals that were, of course, doing nothing more than eating what they were meant to eat.

Author’s Note: I published these findings in Slate in 2010 and the piece was studiously ignored by a foodie culture that simply will not be told that there are no viable alternatives when it comes to eating animals and animal products. As I see it, this study is yet another reason to go vegan, an option that those who shape the discourse on responsible eating refuse to entertain. How much evidence do we have to shove in their faces?