June 3, 2011
This week a German E. coli outbreak reminded us that there is literally shit on our vegetables--shit that can kill a person. E. coli outbreaks aren't uncommon, of course, but this one, thought to have originated with tainted Spanish cucumbers, has already claimed the lives of 15 people, and sickened more than 1,500. One of the heads of agriculture for Spain said they're now preparing to suffer a trade loss of "hundreds of millions of euros," as more and more countries join the list of nations blocking Spanish goods.
"But what does all this have to do with eating meat," you ask? Simple. Factory farming produces hundreds of millions of tons of animal poop, millions of gallons of which gets dumped into cesspools that can then leak and infect water used to irrigate crops. That's how E. coli, an intestinal pathogen found both in cows and humans, can spoil things like cucumbers and spinach. It's going from the cow's anus into your salad.
To be fair, a person can also get E. coli by eating food prepared by a chef who doesn't wash her hands after using the restroom. But all of the widespread outbreaks have their beginnings with animal dung. And factory farms, which produce 99 percent of America's meat, only exacerbate the problem.
According to experts like Dr. Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, "In chickens, [E. coli] bacteria cause a disease called colibacillosis, now one of the most significant and widespread infectious diseases in the poultry industry due to the way we now raise these animals." Colibacillosis, also called "E. coli diarrhea," is directly linked to overcrowding on factory farms. Worse is that studies have shown that if hens were given just a single quart of additional living space, the incidences of colibacillosis could decrease by about a third. But farmers don't give them that space, because profit is revered over public health.
"Those animals are filthy in those feed lots," says Nancy Donley, president of the nonprofit activist group STOP Foodborne Illness. Donley, whose group was founded after the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli wave in 1993, says the close quarters beef cattle are forced to endure are prime breeding ground for E. coli. "They shed the bacteria in their manure. So if you've got one cow that's shedding it and bumping into two others that aren't, there's cross-contamination and you've now got three sick cows." Donley quickly adds, however, that it's not cows who get sick from E. coli, which might be the problem: "If it made the animals sick, and not just people, the industry would be all over trying to improve things."
Jill Castro was one of those people who got sick. After eating some ostensibly normal, "pre-washed" spinach in 2006, it wasn't long before the healthy then-24-year-old marathoner was watching her red-blood cell and platelet count drop. After that, her kidneys began to fail. "Being close to death is not really an exaggeration," she says, "I was in the hospital for about three weeks total, and the doctors really did not know if I was going to make it."
Unlike several others, Castro didn't die from this E. coli outbreak (which scientists traced back to a nearby cattle ranch). She says the ordeal forced her to reconsider what she buys at the grocery store. She first started studying up on produce recalls, but it was the documentary Food, Inc. that helped her find the link between meat farming and vegetables. "I can't believe it took me this long to watch it," she says. "It's changed the way my husband and I shop for food quite a bit. It's not always possible for us to buy local or organic 100 percent of the time, but we try to when we can."
E. coli sickens tens of thousands of people a year, and hundreds of Americans die annually from it and other foodborne illnesses. Were these problems relegated to a certain group of risky eaters, like, say, fans of the infamous fugu dish, we might not have a problem--eat at your own risk. But these don't just kill some Americans. These diseases kill all Americans, even those of us who have consciously decided to not support the precarious disaster that is factory farming. In fact, it stands to reason that a person who eats only vegetables is even more vulnerable to things like tainted spinach than meat eaters, who pad out their diets with all varieties of flesh.
In other words, if you eat meat, that's your choice--but there's actually nothing personal about it.