Preventive Medicine Column

Dr. David L. Katz

As I write this, there is still uncertainty about the source of the E. coli outbreak in Europe that has killed more than 20 people.  Whatever the ultimate conclusion about the delivery vehicle for this deadly bug, however, don’t blame the sprouts, beans, broccoli, cucumbers, peas, or radishes, although these and other crops are under investigation.  In fact, I encourage a “not guilty” verdict for the entire plant kingdom.

When it comes to public health mayhem from mutant germs, plants are innocent bystanders.

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.  It means crowding, vulnerability to infection, and routine dosing of antibiotics- the root cause of antimicrobial resistance.

The origins of E. coli 0157H7 are not mysterious; they relate to changes in the feed of cattle.  We say “you are what you eat,” and since the construction materials for growing bodies come from food and nowhere else, it is literally true.  It is just as true if you happen to have hooves.

Cattle eating grasses have a healthy gastrointestinal tract that is not conducive to the growth of this particular mutant germ.  Cattle being fed grains instead of grasses- and in many cases ground up bits of other animals, possibly even, including their own species- develop abnormal conditions in their GI tract, such as a change in the pH.  It is this abnormal environment within cows on abnormal diets that likely gave us E. coli 0157H7.

We- and our resultant health- not only are what we eat; we are to some extent what we feed what we eat.

So we need to rethink our food.  As long as a we indulge a collective appetite for large quantities of meat, mass production methods will be applied to meet mass demand.  We will pay the price in recurrent outbreaks like the one we have now.  Into the bargain, our morality will be tested by methods fostering, and apparently condoning, the brutal treatment of our fellow creatures.

I am not intending to indict meat consumption; Homo sapiens have long, perhaps always, included some meat in our diet.  But in a world of some 7 billion human beings and modern food production methods, our dietary patterns reverberate in ways they never did before.  In the end, we must concede it is an appetite for large quantities of meat derived from abused, drugged, mass-produced, mass-slaughtered, and centrally processed cows, pigs, and chickens that is responsible for E. coli 0157H7, and mad cow disease- and probably the new germ sailing on sprouts (or whatever) into unsuspecting households.

Like the current menace, E. coli 0157H7 is a recently emergent strain, disseminated as a hitchhiker on foodstuffs, and capable of killing people.  While E. coli 0157H7 has ridden leaves of lettuce and spinach into infamy, this is an enemy whose origins we have met, and we know they are all about meat, not vegetables.

We can be confident this is true of the new germ as well, because E. coli is an intestinal bacterium.  Bean sprouts have no intestines.  If the anatomy doesn’t fit, we must, naturally, acquit.

There is no doubt that opportunistic bacteria will continue to exploit the new environments we create by putting matter into the feed of cows and pigs and chickens that never belonged.  Then when waste matter from those animals gets into fields of spinach, or sprouts, or cucumbers- as it routinely does- plants will be accomplices in our peril, as they appear to be right now.

But appearances can be deceiving.   At its origins, this outbreak  is not about the sprouts.



Dr. David L. Katz;